SIERRA VISTA — Every third Monday in January, the U.S. honors Civil Rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his fight for equality. But how did the holiday come to be, and why was Arizona one of the last to celebrate? The Herald/Review takes a look at these questions.
King was born on January 15, 1929, and not long after he was assassinated in 1968 a movement began to have his birthday marked as a federal holiday. St. Louis, Missouri, and several other cities and states began celebrating MLK Day starting in 1971.
In 1972, the first legislation was introduced in the Arizona Senate that would have provided a “statewide day of observance” for King and his work. The resolution died in committee. Several more bills were introduced in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but all failed to reach the floor.
Starting in 1979, a push for a federal holiday began in the House of Representatives, but fell short of the votes needed, with opponents arguing against the cost, as well as the precedent of honoring a private citizen with a federal holiday.
In 1983, both the House and Senate passed bills with large majorities in favor of a federal holiday for King, and President Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 98-144 establishing the day on Nov. 3, 1983.
With the federal law taking effect in 1986, then-Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt signed an executive order to establish a state holiday that same year, after several more bills failed in the Legislature.
That order was overturned by newly elected Gov. Evan Mecham in 1987, touching off a years-long battle in the state capitol over the holiday. During that time, the National Football League moved Super Bowl XXVII from Arizona to California in 1991 due to the controversy over Arizona’s refusal to observe the holiday.
In 1992, after several more failed attempts to pass laws via the Legislature and the ballot box, Arizona voters approved a referendum to commemorate the holiday, and in 1993 King was officially honored in the Grand Canyon State for the first time.