SALT LAKE CITY — While Utah celebrated a holiday that alternately recognized Martin Luther King Jr. for more than a decade, it was one of the last U.S. states to recognize the civil rights icon’s birthday as a holiday, only officially doing so in 2000.
Here’s a look back at how Martin Luther King, Jr. Day finally became a state holiday 20 years ago.
The origin of MLK Day and Utah’s Human Rights Day
We’re now accustomed to Martin Luther King Jr. Day as both state and federal holidays, but that really wasn’t the case until years after the famed civil rights leader was slain outside a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. At the time of his death, King had become a household name and Utahns were among the rest of the nation to mourn his death.
“Dr. King’s main contribution was his ability to combine confrontation and non-violence. This combination was his big secret; this combination was his goal,” said the Very Rev. Wesley Frensdorff, dean of the St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral at the time, according to an April 6, 1968, Deseret News article.
The push to make MLK Day a national holiday wasn’t necessarily easy after that. It began when Michigan Rep. John Conyers brought up the potential measure just days after King’s death, but no major action was done at that time, History.com noted. The outlet pointed out Conyers continued pushing for it every year, gaining assistance from the Congressional Black Caucus along the way, but it never really made progress on a national scale until the 1980s.
Meanwhile, Illinois became the first state to recognize a holiday for King in 1973, according to the Chicago Public Library. A decade later, President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation that made it become a federal holiday beginning on the third Monday of 1986.
Utah lawmakers were discussing a bill to make a state holiday at the same time the first federal MLK Day approached in 1986. The fact that it wasn’t a state holiday back then had mixed reactions. For example, the Utah Daily Chronicle editorial team blasted Utah legislatures in a Jan. 20, 1986, edition of the paper.
It is demeaning to even think about arguing for the validity of a holiday for King. He accomplished so much in such a short time ... that there can be no argument.
–Utah Daily Chronicle editorial team
“It is demeaning to even think about arguing for the validity of a holiday for King. He accomplished so much in such a short time for the betterment of this country and its people that there can be no argument,” they wrote.
A few weeks after that editorial ran, the Utah Senate failed to make it a state holiday in a vote in front of King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, according to a Feb. 7, 1986, edition of the Deseret News. She had come to Utah to speak at the First Baptist Church in Salt Lake City and the BYU campus in Provo. The report noted that the Senate mixup was related to a part of the bill that would have eliminated Columbus Day and also combine holidays for Abraham Lincoln and George Washington’s birthday into one Presidents Day.
Lawmakers eventually settled on a holiday called Human Rights Day that fell on the same day others honored King. While alternately known for Martin Luther King Jr., it wasn’t officially changed to that in Utah until a bill was passed in 2000.
A switch to MLK Day
In 1991, Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter signed the approval of the Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission, which is still in existence today. The group was created to "involve all sectors, private and public, in a conscious effort to promote diversity, equity, and human rights."
Utah wasn't alone in states that didn't officially honor King after the federal holiday was created. Most notably, Arizona lost its bid to host a Super Bowl slated for 1993 after voters in that state failed to pass a measure to make MLK Day a paid state holiday, as noted by The Undefeated. Voters passed the measure when it was brought up again in 1992 and NFL awarded Super Bowl XXX to the state, which was played in 1996.
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As for Utah, State Sen. Pete Suazo introduced a bill to change a holiday's name to honor King in January 2000.
“Human Rights Day does not give due credit to the contributions of this great man. As a leader, he raised the consciousness about prejudice and discrimination, corporate advancement and especially voting rights," Suazo said at the time, according to the Deseret News.
The bill was eventually signed by Gov. Mike Leavitt on March 16, 2000. Later that year, South Carolina became the last state to officially make MLK Day a state holiday, according to Time.
Today, all 50 states celebrate the holiday.