In January of 1975, the Ohio Legislature took up the debate to recognize the third Monday of January as a state holiday in honor of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Seven years after the iconic leader was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, Representative John Conyers of Michigan introduced legislation on the U.S. House of Representatives floor to establish the holiday four days after King’s death, but nothing happened at the federal level at the time. In 1971, Congress received more than 6 million signatures supporting the creation of the King Holiday, but no action was taken.
In 1973, Illinois would become the first state to recognize the holiday. Other states such as Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey would follow the Land of Lincoln with the Buckeye State officially recognizing the third Monday of January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a state holiday in the early and mid-1970s. It would not be until 1983 President Ronald Regan would sign the law creating the federally-recognized holiday with some states such as Arizona resisting its recognition at the time. It would take a total of 32 years, the year 2000 to be exact, before all 50 states acknowledged the holiday and utilized Martin Luther King Jr.’s name as part of the observance.
Utah was the last state to do so.
In 1975, the Urbana City Council passed a resolution sent to Columbus urging state legislators to pass the bill that would establish the King Holiday in Ohio. There was heated debate on the floor with the most vocal opposition coming from a legislator from Ashland who questioned celebrating “such an individual” and that the holiday would cost the state millions of dollars in lost revenue. However, the bill passed, and January of 1976 would mark the first MLK Holiday observed in Ohio. It was noted there was little fanfare in Champaign County and Urbana at the time. Urbana schools were open and featured class discussions and programs about the contributions of Dr. King. Some parents of the Urbana district did not send their children to school that day. Graham, Mechanicsburg, West Liberty-Salem and Triad schools all had the day off.
The banks of Urbana remained open as did many of the downtown businesses. Urbana city offices were open, but county offices were closed. It would not be until April of the same year, the first formal public program in Urbana would be held centered around the King Holiday. A community memorial service was held at St. Paul A.M.E. Church on East Market Street featuring Frank Moorer, who was a researcher for the King Center for Social Justice in Atlanta but was on staff at Wilberforce University at the time of his lecture in Urbana. Future breakfasts and ceremonies for the King Holiday would follow in Urbana taking place at Jerusalem Second Baptist Church and St. Paul A.M.E. Church going forward.
In 1978, there was an attempt to move the yet proposed federal holiday away from the third Monday as debate continued in Washington D.C. to recognize the day. Urbana Republican Congressman and Urbana Daily Citizen owner, Clarence “Bud” Brown, joined with another Ohio Republican and the Ohio Democrat caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives to vote in favor to stay the course with the third Monday to coincide with King’s birthday.
Brown would go on to unsuccessfully run for governor of Ohio in 1982 and retired from Congress 40 years ago this month in 1983, the same year the federal government finally officially recognized the Martin Luther King holiday.
John Bry is a local resident who details historical accounts of local places, people and things.