Tomorrow, Chapel Hill, and the nation, marks Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a federal holiday that was first celebrated on January 20, 1986, three years after veto-proof majorities of the United State Congress passed legislation commemorating the civil rights leader.

But proposals to pass a federal holiday to honor King had been under discussion for more than a decade, with Congressman John Conyers, of Michigan, proposing legislation to remember King with a holiday just four days after the civil rights leader was assassinated in April 1968 (Here’s a more detailed timeline of what it took to pass the holiday).

As a writer for The Nation magazine wrote in 2011, early proposals to recognize King with a holiday were closely linked to the labor movement, who helped sustain the push to honor King. In many cities, public sector unions were able to successfully negotiate a holiday to honor King in their contract negotiations, but convincing state legislatures and the U.S. Congress to pass the holiday proved to be more difficult.

In Chapel Hill, Mayor Howard Lee, whose May 1969 election made him the first African American mayor to lead a majority-white city in the Southeast, first declared January 15, King’s birthday, Martin Luther King Day in 1970.

Howard Lee Honors King Day. Daily Tar Heel. January 15, 1970.
Daily Tar Heel. January 15, 1970.

While Lee did not make King’s birthday a holiday—the Chapel Hill Town Council did not vote to do so until 1983, the same year that federal legislation was passed—he encouraged Chapel Hill citizens to “take a few moments during the day and remember with gratitude the great contributions” King made.

In 1971, Lee made a similar proclamation, and suggested that King was a model for young people.

Daily Tar Heel, January 14, 1971.
Daily Tar Heel, January 14, 1971.

In 1973, the Chapel Hill Board of Alderman declared January 15 Martin Luther King Day, calling for a moment of silence at noon.  But not all were in support of commemorating King in this way. In 1977, the UNC faculty council rejected a proposal to commemorate King’s birthday, choosing instead to “set aside a day to honor the cause of race relations.”

A newspaper article with the headline "Faculty Council Rejects Martin Luther King Day."
Chapel Hill News, March 20, 1977.

In 1981, UNC students pushed for a federal holiday to support King, the same year that Carrboro mayor Robert Drakeford, the town’s first African American mayor, proclaimed a day to honor King.

Newspaper article in which UNC students call for King holiday
Daily Tar Heel. January 16, 1981.

Two years later, the United States Congress finally passed legislation making King’s birthday a federal holiday. Both of North Carolina’s Senators, Jesse Helms and John East, voted against the legislation, but it had support from nine of the state’s eleven congressional representatives. The following year, in 1984, Chapel Hill first celebrated King’s birthday as a town holiday—finally giving sanitation workers, whose cause King was championing when he was murdered in April 1968, the day off.

Chapel Hill Garbage 1984
Chapel Hill News, January 15, 1984.

Martin Johnson lives in Chapel Hill. He teaches film studies courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a member of NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro and the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel...