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CGCC Library Celebrates: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service

About the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has long been a central figure in the history of the civil rights movement of the 1960's. From the beginning of his career as a reverend to his fame as a charismatic leader and orator, Dr. King worked together with those in his community and throughout the nation towards equality for all people.

Although a well-recognized and admired figure, it wasn't until 1986 that the country began observing Dr. King's birthday as a holiday. As the Department of Defense Education Activity describes: "On Monday, January 20, 1986, Americans celebrated the first official Martin Luther King Day, which is the only federal holiday commemorating an African-American. In 1994, Congress designated the holiday as a national day of service and marking the third Monday in January every year as, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service - a 'Day On, Not a Day Off'" (

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Arizona

In 1993, Arizona was the last state in the nation to formally adopt Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a paid state holiday even though it had been signed into federal law by then-President Ronald Regan in 1983. Many states adopted the holiday unilaterally, with little political impact. However, politicians and voters in other states took more convincing; among those states was Arizona.

The battle for the holiday was a thread that ran through the terms of three state governors. Bruce Babbit declared MLK Day a holiday in 1986, just as most of the country was doing the same. However, right before it could be celebrated in the state for the first time, a new governor was inaugurated: Evan Mecham. He rescinded the previous executive order, preventing the recognition of the holiday that year.

(Image: "Arizona Governor Fife Symington marching in a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Parade," Arizona Memory Project)

The fight was then taken to the people. A number of competing measures were proposed and voted upon over the next few years, but voters could not agree on how--or even if--the holiday should be incorporated into the calendar. One measure would have removed Columbus Day, in order to keep the number of state holidays at 10. Another proposed adding in MLK Day as an 11th day off in the official list of holidays. Both failed in the election. As a result of the failure to recognize the holiday, the National Football League removed the Super Bowl from Arizona. This was painful for the state, and brought the debate to national attention. Eventually, losing the Super Bowl was cited as one of several reasons voters decided it was time.

The next governor to take on the issue, Rose Mofford, stated in an address: "We cannot, we will not give up this struggle. Enacting the holiday is the right thing to do" ("Remarks by Governor Rose Mofford," MLK Day Rally, Jan. 21, 1991).  Finally in 1992 the people of Arizona voted to enact the proposition to combine Washington and Lincoln's holidays into one (Presidents' Day) in order to incorporate MLK Day as an official, paid holiday.

For more: White, K. "What Do you Know about Arizona's Civil-Rights History?AZ Central.