Jan 13, 2023 - News

Utah was one of the last states to recognize MLK Day

Photo illustration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and children holding "I am a Man" signs with the WashingtonMonument in the background.

Photo illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios. Photo: Stephen F. Somerstein, Bloomberg/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an annual federal holiday observed on the third Monday in January, celebrates the birthday of the slain civil rights leader.

Yes, but: Even after MLK Day was recognized federally in the 1980s, it took 14 years for Utah to officially commemorate it, making it one of the last states to do so.

Flashback: In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday. The day was observed for the first time in 1986.

  • That year, Utah's first Black state senator, Terry Williams, introduced a bill to replace Abraham Lincoln's birthday with MLK Day, according to a 1986 article published in The Salt Lake Tribune. It was considered a highly controversial bill in Utah.
  • Instead, a compromise was reached and the bill was amended to call it "Human Rights Day" before passing, to the dismay of Democrats and civil rights advocates, including the local NAACP chapter and King's widow, Coretta Scott King.

Between the lines: At the time, op-eds in student newspapers at the University of Utah and Southern Utah University rebuked state lawmakers for failing to honor King's birthday and formally acknowledge his accomplishments.

  • "It is up to a state to decide if it will honor a national holiday, yet all but six states recognize King’s birthday. Utah is one of the six. This is a disgrace," SUU students wrote.

State of play: By 2000, most states had already passed laws making MLK Day a state holiday and Utah leaders faced pressure to follow suit, per the Deseret News.

  • Democratic state lawmakers Rep. Duane Bordeaux and Sen. Pete Suazo introduced a bill in 2000 to replace Human Rights Day with Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It was signed by Gov. Mike Leavitt.

The latest: Last year, state Rep. Sandra Hollins (D-Salt Lake City) co-sponsored a bill to make Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of slaves in the U.S., a state holiday.

  • That bill became law after it garnered bipartisan support and moved swiftly through the House and the Senate — a stark contrast compared to the events from 22 years ago.
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