Martin Luther King Day, by State

Last year I researched MLK Day for a novel. I needed to know if Indiana kids in 1987 would have had the day off from school. For the I fun of it, I ended up researching all the states.

The federal holiday was signed by Reagan in 1983, and took effect in 1986. But many states legalized MLK Day much earlier; other states a lot later. Illinois was the first progressive in 1973; Utah the last holdout in 2000. In the year 1987, Indiana was behind the curve compared its neighbors. See the map below, where Indiana is a yellow state in a sea of progressive blue. At first Indiana only approved MLK Day as a temporary holiday, by governor decree. It wouldn’t become permanent until 1989, and schools wouldn’t close until the ’90s.

My state, New Hampshire, was even less progressive on the state level, and only slightly better on the school district level. We were the third-last state to adopt the holiday, in 1999 — an embarrassing red state sticking out in the northeast. However, many of our schools were closing long before it became a state holiday, as early as 1989 — though that was still late in the game compared to other states. I graduated from high school in ’87, and unlike the Massachusetts kids right over the border from me — who had been enjoying days off from school since ’75 — we were still going to school on that third Monday in January.

It’s worth noting the two states that celebrate MLK Day as a joint holiday with Robert E. Lee Day: Alabama and Mississippi. Virginia and Arkansas used to do the same thing until 2000 (Virginia) and 2017 (Arkansas). Alabama and Mississippi, to this day, honor King and Lee on the same day, which seems rather perverse.

Look at the map and chart below and note the variance between the year the holiday was legalized and the year schools started closing. Some schools were closing long before the day became a state-sanctioned holiday, and sometimes well after. I couldn’t always get a reliable answer as to when schools started closing. I contacted state and city librarians in every state; some were better sleuths than others.

(The maps comes from MCI Maps, though I’ve corrected this guy’s errors based on my research. He has five states in the wrong date brackets: Virginia, Florida, Rhode Island, North Dakota, and South Carolina.)

State Signed into law as a state holiday (taking effect the following January)
Schools start closing
Notes
Illinois
1973 1974
Maryland
1974 1970
Massachusetts
1974 1975
Kentucky 1974 1986
Ohio
1975 1976
Connecticut 1976 1973 Hartford public schools closed in ’73. Schools closed statewide in ’75.
Michigan
1977 1979
New Jersey
1977 1979
Louisiana* 1977/1999 1980 * Functioned as a temporary state holiday for 20 years, until the end of ’98, repeatedly by governor decree, and then made permanent in ’99.
Virginia*
1977/1984/2000 1986 * Started as a joint holiday with New Year’s Day in ’77, then moved to the 3rd Monday in ’84, combining with Robert E. Lee/Stonewall Jackson Day. Became exclusively MLK Day in 2000, with Lee/Jackson Day moved to the preceding Friday, as an honorary day, not a paid holiday.
Florida
1978 1980 Schools closed in ’80, but only in Dade County; by ’86 most schools had followed suit.
Pennsylvania 1978 1979
Missouri*
1979 1987 * Made a state holiday in ’79, but there were no days off. Took effect as a paid day off in ’87, which is also when schools started closing.
California 1982 1976 In 2007, public school closure became mandatory.
West Virginia
1982 1986
Arkansas* 1983/1984/2017 ??? * Starting in ’83, state employees could choose two days to observe as holidays between the three options of MLK Day (3rd Monday of January), Robert E. Lee’s birthday, and the employee’s birthday. Starting in ’84, MLK Day became a joint holiday with Robert E. Lee Day. It became exclusively MLK Day in 2017, with Robert E. Lee Day moved to the second Saturday in October, as an honorary day, not a paid holiday.
North Carolina*
1983 1987 * Made a state holiday in ’83, but unpaid. Took effect as a paid holiday in ’87, which is also when schools started closing.
Wisconsin
1983 1995
FEDERAL HOLIDAY (Signed into law, Nov 2, 1983)
Alabama*
1984 ??? * Signed into law as a joint holiday with Robert E. Lee Day, and still remains so to this day.
Georgia 1984 1987 Schools started closing in ’87, but in some Catholic schools only for African American students.
Minnesota 1984 1986 Optional holiday for schools in ’86, but schools that were open had to devote time to honoring MLK in some way. In later years, most schools closed for the day.
New York 1984 1986
Oregon 1984 1980
Rhode Island
1984 1983
Tennessee
1984 1993
Colorado
1985 1986
Kansas 1985 ???
Maine
1985 1985
Nebraska 1985 1991
Oklahoma
1985 1989
Washington
1985 1986
FEDERAL HOLIDAY (Takes effect, January 1986)
Delaware
1986 1971
Indiana*
1986/1989 1990 * Functioned as a temporary state holiday for 2 years, until the end of ’88. Made permanent in ’89. Schools started closing in ’90, but only in Marion County. Most other schools started closing in ’91.
Vermont
1986 ???
Mississippi*
1987 ??? * Signed into law as a joint holiday with Robert E. Lee Day, and still remains so to this day.
Nevada 1987 ???
New Mexico
1987 1990
Texas
1987 1986
Hawaii
1988 1989
Alaska
1989 1990
Iowa
1989 1993
Idaho 1990 ???
South Dakota
1990 ???
Wyoming 1990 1991
Montana 1991 ???
North Dakota 1991 ???
Arizona
1992 1993 The push for the holiday started in ’86, but it was fought tooth and nail until ’92, when it was finally passed by referendum. Arizona is the only state to pass MLK Day by referendum.
New Hampshire
1999 1989 Schools in Nashua, and many others throughout the state, started closing in ’89.
South Carolina
2000 1992 Some schools closed as early as ’92. By 2006 all schools were closed.
Utah
2000 ???

 

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