The Obama family visits Dr. King's memorial (White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
In 1982, President Reagan signed the law that established a federal holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Because Dr. King's birthday was in January, the authors of the bill thought it made sense for his holiday to be in January as well.
Almost 25 years later, it's time to ask if they got this right. Because schools are closed on Martin Luther King Day, most children likely see his holiday as a break from the classroom rather than an opportunity to learn about Dr. King. Those adults who have a day of paid vacation are likewise not likely to spend it honoring the civil rights leader. What seemed like a fitting tribute to this great American when it was first proposed now seems sorely inadequate.
Without Dr. King, there's no telling when (or if) Congress would have passed either the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act. Because of these historic laws, the widespread discrimination that was being practiced throughout much of the country was prohibited, and the voting rights of African-Americans and others were finally protected. It is hard to overstate the effect of Dr. King's efforts. In Mississippi-- just to take one example-- voter turnout among African-Americans increased from six percent in 1964 to almost 60 percent by the end of that decade. Throughout the nation, the work of Dr. King and countless others within the civil rights movement helped advance legal and political equality for millions.
Dr. King's heroism helped accomplish a great deal, but his work is far from finished. Since the 1960s, voter turnout is down significantly, especially in non-presidential election years. In the 1966 midterm elections, 48.7 percent of the voting-eligible population cast ballots. In 2014, just 35.9 percent did. While many creative ideas for increasing voter turnout are offered every election season, making it easier for people to get to the polls would be an important step in the right direction.
By moving Martin Luther King Day to election day, we would finally make election day a federal holiday and instantly give millions of Americans more time to vote. The cost of making this switch would be modest, since it would simply involve moving an existing federal holiday, not creating a new one.
It's hard to imagine that Dr. King or his family would be against such a plan. More people would be able to participate in the democratic process, and every person stepping into the voting booth on election day would be honoring his legacy. King would get the holiday he deserves.
by John Martin, Republican District Leader, 81st Assembly District.