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The making of the King National Holiday

Katie Hall and Richard Gordon Hatcher key historical figures

By Junifer Hall, JD

On the third Monday in January 2020, which happens to be the 20th, millions of Americans and persons of good will in more than 100 countries around the world will observe in some form, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday in honor of the slain civil rights leader.

Beginning with Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, the journey to establish a federal holiday in his honor would be a long and contentious one, involving the time, talent, treasure, and tenacity of many notable national and international dignitaries, plus skilled legislators from both major American political parties.

In 1983, the time had finally arrived to make Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday. On June 16th of the same year, U.S. Representative Katie Hall of Indiana’s First Congressional District, which includes a huge portion of the City of Gary, authored and sponsored House of Representatives Bill, H.R. 3345, with a mere sixty (60) co-sponsors “signing on” in support of “The King Bill.” Fortunately, for U.S. Representative Hall, strong momentum among her Congressional colleagues grew rapidly in the U.S. House of Representatives in support of federal legislation in honor of Dr. King. Thus, there was an urgent need to re-introduce this legislation as House of Representatives Bill, H.R. 3706, to include approximately one hundred and eight (108) co-sponsors.

Although numerous Americans around the country had been observing Dr. King’s birthday commencing in January 1969, federal legislation designating a specific time frame in which to do so would prove most useful in terms of “time-off” for employees of the federal government and private industry. Therefore, House of Representatives Bill, H.R. 3706, which simply reads, “On the third Monday in January, a legal holiday shall be established in the United States of America in honor of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” became the structured vehicle by which people all over the world can remember the great accomplishments, life, and legacy of Dr. King.

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MAYOR RICHARD GORDON HATCHER and U.S. Representative Katie Hall in her Congressional Office in Washington, D.C. (circa 1983).

In light of the bold and talented leadership of a great visionary, The Honorable Richard Gordon Hatcher, the first Black mayor of Gary and Lake County Democratic Chairman, then Indiana State Senator Katie Hall (District #3) was appointed to fill the unexpired term of U.S. Representative Adam Benjamin, Jr., who died unexpectedly. Thus, Mayor Hatcher was compassionately and uniquely responsible for catapulting Mrs. Hall to serve as the first African-American in Indiana state history as a member of the United States House of Representatives.

Despite Dr. King’s many accomplishments to bring forth social change in America via non-violent techniques, there was strong opposition in Congress to pending federal legislation honoring Dr. King. Some conservative members of Congress did not want Dr. King elevated to the same national status as U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, in addition, to the explorer Christopher Columbus.

During the long and tireless struggles to ensure passage of “The King Bill,” coupled with the first official national observance of “The King Holiday” in January 1986, U.S. Representative Hall would continuously reflect on the great opportunity she was given by Mayor Hatcher, her political mentor, to author and sponsor H.R. 3706, commonly known as “The King Bill.”

The daily positive encouragement and wise strategic counsel U.S. Representative Hall received from Mayor Hatcher during this time was to “stay the course” and be persistent in navigating H.R. 3706 from its authorship and sponsorship in the “Congressional Bill Box” until reaching its final destination on U.S. President Reagan’s desk for signature, played a major historic role in obtaining a national holiday in honor of Dr. King. Mayor Hatcher, a great international statesman was a dear friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today, some may ask, especially our youth, “what is the importance and relevancy” of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday Observance in 2020, and beyond?” First, the King national holiday teaches people around the world about the implementation of American democracy. Also, people can learn about the extraordinary and spiritual contributions of Dr. King, in ensuring equality and fairness to all people regardless of race, national origin, or religious affiliations.

Secondly, the national holiday gives people of African-American heritage, a “sense of pride” and dignity. This national holiday teaches us that African-Americans have contributed and sought to make the United States of America, a great nation based on the concepts of equal justice and liberty for all. On August 2, 1983, U.S. Representative Hall commented, “Never before have we had a holiday set aside for a Black American.”

Third and most importantly, the national holiday teaches us that everyone can serve as a humanitarian the same as Dr. King had done, no matter our economic, political, and/or or social status. Each of us can serve in our own church, community, school, university or wherever physically present to ensure equality and fairness for all citizens of the world.

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