Martin Luther King Day’s Chicago Roots

In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr.  was assassinated in Memphis while there to support sanitation workers striking for higher wages and better working conditions. Five years later, in 1973, Harold Washington, then an Illinois state representative, introduced a bill to make Martin Luther King's birthday a state holiday.

Petition urging lawmakers to approve the bill establishing Martin Luther King's birthday as a holiday. Source: Harold Washington. Pre-Mayoral Records. IL State Representative Records. Box 2, Folder 3.
Source: Harold Washington. Pre-Mayoral Records. IL State Representative Records. Box 2, Folder 3.

The bill passed the Illinois House and Senate, and Washington collected thousands of signatures on petitions urging Governor Daniel Walker to sign. Walker signed the bill, and in 1973, Illinois became the first state to declare Martin Luther King's birthday a holiday.

When Harold Washington got to Washington, D.C., he continued efforts to recognize King's achievements by declaring his birth a national holiday. In 1981, speaking at a Martin Luther King Day celebration in Chicago, Washington said:

"Here in Illinois we do have our one day to celebrate...yet, incredibly, it is not yet a national holiday. As a state legislator in Springfield I led the fight to make King's birthday a state holiday. In Washington, I have already joined...in sponsoring a bill which will make King's birthday a national holiday, for all Americans to celebrate our black freedom struggles.... We must not let our history be forgotten."

Mayor Harold Washington with Coretta Scott King
Mayor Harold Washington with Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King's widow. Source: Harold Washington. Press Office Series. Photographs, Box 56, 1987 February 20.

Movement to make King's birthday a national holiday had begun immediately after King's death. Fifteen years later, in 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation. The first national Martin Luther King Day was observed on January 20, 1986.

In the same 1981 speech, Washington stated, "We honor Martin Luther King only when we work to complete the justice struggle for which he gave his life." To learn more about Harold Washington's role in this justice struggle, visit Special Collections to view the archives of his political career.

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