How was Ill. first on MLK holiday? Washington did it
Future Chicago mayor lobbied in 1973 to make the Rev. Martin Luther King’s birthday a state holiday
By Ted Cox
Illinois was the first state to adopt the Rev. Martin Luther King’s birthday as an official holiday, and was instrumental in getting the holiday accepted nationwide.
Why? Harold Washington.
Washington, the future mayor of Chicago, was a state representative in the General Assembly in 1973 when he sponsored a bill to make King’s birthday, Jan. 15, a state holiday. Washington was one of the first backers of a King holiday after his assassination in 1968, but a previous attempt in 1971 had been vetoed by Republican Gov. Richard Ogilvie. Yet Washington passed the bill through both houses again, then completed the deal by organizing a petition campaign urging newly inaugurated Gov. Dan Walker to sign it. Walker did, and in 1973 Illinois became the first state to declare King’s birthday a holiday.
Washington observed the holiday almost religiously and backed it as a national holiday as a congressman from 1981 until he was sworn in as Chicago’s first African-American mayor in 1983. But it wasn’t until later that year that a reluctant President Ronald Reagan, who’d argued against the holiday, signed it into law, first observed nationally on Jan. 15, 1986.
King clearly inspired Washington. The civil-rights leader’s Chicago campaign for fair housing in the mid-’60s was a “clarifying event for Washington,” according to Gary Rivlin in his book “Fire on the Prairie.”
Mayor Washington survived the so-called “Council Wars” era, when 29 white aldermen, including current Aldermen Edward Burke and Patrick O’Connor, formed a voting bloc to deny Washington his reform initiatives until a court decision on a ward remap dictated new elections and shifted the balance in Chicago’s City Council midway through his first term. Washington won re-election in 1987, helped on at least one occasion by an appearance by King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, but he died of a heart attack later that year.