The Controversial Birth of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Today the United States celebrates the national holiday Martin Luther King Jr. Day, continuing to honor the slain civil rights leader nearly 47 years after his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on 4 April 1968. This famous advocate of nonviolence helped raise the civil rights movement to national prominence, forever changing American society. He also was a champion of economic justice for the nation’s poor, and was becoming a leader in the anti-Vietnam War protest movement when he was murdered. Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Noble Peace Prize in 1964.

photo of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Photo: Martin Luther King, Jr., by Dick DeMarsico, 1964. Source: Library of Congress.

To many, it would seem that honoring such a pivotal figure with a national holiday would be an obvious choice for America’s government and public, but that was not the case. There was a great deal of opposition to President Reagan’s signing the bill on 2 November 1983, creating the MLK holiday. Reagan himself had earlier opposed the bill, saying that giving federal employees the day off with pay would be too expensive.

photo of President Ronald Reagan signing the bill to create Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 3 November 1983

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 3 November 1983, page 6

Reagan had threatened to veto the bill but backed off when it was passed by such strong veto-proof votes in Congress (78 to 22 in the Senate and 338 to 90 in the House of Representatives). At a press conference two weeks before signing the bill, Reagan said he would sign it “since they (Congress) seem bent on making it a national holiday.” He then went on during the press conference to speculate that FBI documents might reveal King’s communist sympathies. He also wrote Meldrim Thomson, the governor of New Hampshire, that the public’s high regard for King was “based on an image, not reality.”

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When the bill first came before the House of Representatives, in 1979, it failed passage by five votes. Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) led opposition to the bill in the Senate, questioning King’s qualification for such an honor and grousing about his “Marxist” tendencies. When it came up for the Senate vote, John McCain (R-Arizona) was one of the 22 senators who voted against it. Even after the bill’s passage and Reagan’s signature, various states refused to recognize the MLK holiday, with Arizona and New Hampshire being the last two holdouts. It was not until 2000 that Martin Luther King Jr. Day was officially observed in all 50 states.

President Signs King Holiday Bill, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 3 November 1983

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 3 November 1983, page 19

According to this old news article:

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said after the ceremony, “I think as an optimist and someone with hope. I would hope that now, that this is the beginning of this administration’s real commitment to the basic and fundamental rights of people in our society.”

While criticizing Reagan’s firing of three Civil Rights Commission members who criticized the administration, Kennedy added, “I’d rather look to today and think that perhaps the administration will move on a different path in the future than it has in the past.”

In his remarks, Reagan said, “In America, in the ’50s and ’60s, one of the important crises we faced was racial discrimination. The man whose words and deeds in that crisis stirred our nation to the very depths of its soul was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

editorial about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 20 January 2003

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 20 January 2003, page 4

This editorial reads:

A Uniting Legacy

As the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day today—he’d be 74 if he hadn’t been tragically assassinated in 1968—it’s remarkable how his legacy has pulled this nation together.

Despite the controversies and emotions he generated in the turbulent ’60s, just about everyone claims him today. Even people who criticized him on specific issues, such as his support of school busing and opposition to the Vietnam War, have come to see how right he was on racial justice.

Every reasonable person today agrees that people should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

History, of course, looks beyond the ideological and political battles of the ’60s. King’s legacy is larger than that. By leading America’s greatest civil rights movement in the 20th century, he stands as a symbol of non-violent resistance to overweening government power. That legacy resonates loudly as we enter another contentious era—balancing privacy rights against the need for security against terrorism.

Another measure of the Rev. King’s lasting impact is that, although he’s been dead for nearly 35 years, no other civil rights leader has come along who comes close to filling his shoes—not that several haven’t tried.

Today’s theme for the ninth annual memorial observance honoring the Rev. King at Augusta’s Mt. Calvary Baptist Church nicely sums up the powerful impact the great man had on our country: “Making a World of Difference through Godly Leadership for Racial Harmony, Non-Violence and Human Emancipation.”

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: Brief Genealogy & Family Tree Download

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post—in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—Scott searches old newspapers to find out more about Dr. King’s family history—and includes a free MLK family tree download.

The year was 1968. If you lived it, you know it was a year quite like no other in U.S. history. Certain words and images are indelibly seared into our memories from 1968: Vietnam, Tet Offensive, anti-war riots, Robert F. Kennedy, Apollo, Nixon, “Prague Spring,” and Martin Luther King Jr. to name a few.

It was on 4 April 1968 that our world lost the legendary civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to an assassin’s bullet, as reported in this 1968 Louisiana newspaper.

Dr. King Fatally Shot by Assassin in Memphis, Times-Picayune newspaper article 5 April 1968

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 5 April 1968, page 1

The world was in shock and sadness over the assassination of MLK, and our entire nation was on edge.  As a country, we tried to come to grips with the murder of one of our most stalwart proponents of peaceful humanitarian change.

Since today is the national celebration of Dr. King’s life, as well as the 46th anniversary of his untimely death, I thought I would search GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to see what I could learn about the genealogy and family history of this truly great American.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Father, the Reverend King Sr.

The first thing we need to recall is that while newspapers often referred to him as Dr. King, his full name was Martin Luther King Jr. His father was Rev. Martin Luther King Sr.

Rev. King Sr. outlived his son, dying in Atlanta of heart disease in 1984, as reported in this Texas newspaper. This obituary gives us more information about the family of Rev. King Sr., commenting that “his life was stained by repeated tragedy.” He not only lost his son, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1968 assassination, but his only other son, Rev. A. D. King, accidentally drowned in 1969, and his wife, Alberta Williams King, was killed by gunfire while playing the organ during a church service in 1974.

Rev. King Sr., 84, Dies of Heart Disease, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 12 November 1984

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 12 November 1984, page 1A

Rev. King Sr.’s faith and commitment is shown in the last two paragraphs of this obituary:

“But in his last years, King refused to speak with bitterness about his family’s losses. Nor did he swerve from his commitment to non-violence and his faith in the ultimate designs of a loving God.

“‘I do not hate the man who took the life of my dead son,’ he said at a bicentennial ceremony in Dallas in 1976. ‘I am not going to hate the young man who came and killed my wife. I am every man’s brother. I’m going on with my job.’”

The murder of Alberta King, wife of Rev. King Sr. and mother of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was reported in this 1974 Massachusetts newspaper.

Martin Luther King's Mother Slain in Church, Boston Herald newspaper article 1 July 1974

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 1 July 1974, page 1

MLK’s Personal “Preacher’s Kid” Story & Family Photo

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was part of a group called “preacher’s kids,” as shown in this 2006 Illinois newspaper article. This old newspaper article not only provides a view of what it is like to grow up as a “PK” or preacher’s kid, but also provides us with a photo of the King family in 1963, as well as a very nice biography of Dr. King which lists his wife, Coretta Scott, and his four children, Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter, and Bernice.

Preacher's Kids; Martin Luther King Is Part of a Proud--and often Misunderstood--Group, Register Star newspaper article 14 January 2006

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 14 January 2006, page 9

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Daughter, the Reverend Bernice King

I then discovered an intriguing article from a 1991 South Dakota newspaper about Dr. King’s daughter Bernice. She is the only one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s four children to become a minister. The old newspaper article proclaims: “Bernice King is seeking her own mission and her own identity.” As with so many of our own families, it seems the passion for a profession followed through the branches and roots of the King family with Rev. Bernice King, who is currently the chief executive officer of The King Center.

[Bernice King] Going Her Own Way, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 20 January 1991

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 20 January 1991, page 35

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Grandfather, the Reverend A. D. Williams

It was also interesting for me to note, when I looked up Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s grave on, that his maternal grandfather, A. D. Williams, was also a Reverend.

Honoring the Memory of MLK

Dr. King’s legacy was recognized and respected by the signing of the bill establishing a national holiday in his honor by then-President Ronald Reagan, as reported in this 1983 Washington newspaper article.

Reagan Signs Bill Setting King Holiday, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 2 November 1983

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 2 November 1983, page 1

His legacy was further elevated by the establishment of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 2011.

a photo of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial

Photo: Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. Credit: U.S. National Park Service.

It was an article I found in a 1971 Alabama newspaper that really made me nostalgic. This article is all about songwriter Dick Holler and it reports: “Holler considers ‘Abraham, Martin and John’ his best song to date.” It goes on to say: “He said it only took about 10 minutes to write the song and that he had no idea it would be such a tremendous success.”

Former Mobilian [Dick Holler] Has Musical Success, Mobile Register newspaper article 30 December 1971

Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama), 30 December 1971, page 30

While all of the memorials and tributes to Dr. King are wonderful, it is Dick Holler’s that I always carry close in my heart!

“Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
I just looked around and he’s gone.”
—Dick Holler

Take some time during today’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day commemoration to reflect upon this great civil rights leader and his legacy of faith, love, hope, and non-violence.

A Free Martin Luther King Jr. Family Tree Download

Start your own genealogy investigation into his life with this free Martin Luther King Jr. family tree template download that contains the names, DOB, and DOD (if applicable) of his parents, grandparents and great grandparents.

Martin Luther King Jr. Family Tree

Martin Luther King Jr. Family Tree 4 Generations

Feel free to share this family tree on your own website or blog using the embed code below.

MLK Genealogy Challenge

See if you can find out more about Martin Luther King Jr.’s ancestry dating back into the 1800s, and fill in some of the unknowns in his family tree. Our African American newspaper archives is a great place to start. Please be sure to share your MLK family history finds with us in the comments!

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