Martin Luther King Day became a federal holiday in 1983 due in large part to a push from Illinois leaders.

Illinois had been celebrating Dr. King’s birthday as a state holiday since 1973, thanks to an effort spearheaded by state lawmaker and soon to be Congressman and Mayor Harold Washington.

In the early 1980s, spurred in part by Stevie Wonder’s song “Happy Birthday”, civil rights leaders including Pastor Richard Redman of the NAACP’s South Side Chicago Branch reached out to Dr. King’s widow Coretta Scott King for input on expanding her husband’s birthday into a federal holiday.  

Redman, Washington, and other civil rights groups hosted a massive march on Washington in 1981 calling for a federal holiday. President Ronald Reagan signed the law in 1983, though it didn’t take effect until three years later.