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Attempts to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday failed for 15 years following his assassination.
But on Nov. 2, 1983, a Black congresswoman from Indiana succeeded.
Her name was Katie Beatrice Hall.
She was the first African American to be elected into U.S. Congress in the state, and, the woman that sponsored and introduced the bill that became law honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Indiana Historical Society director of education and engagement, Bethany Hrachovec, called the achievement “incredibly significant."
“There was a lot of immediate local response to Doctor King’s assassination,” Hrachovec said. “Streets were named, some communities recognized the holiday, some states did, but there was nothing on the federal level.”
U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., (D-MI), made the first legislative attempt to honor King Jr. four days after King’s assassination in 1968. A bill was introduced every year after.
But it was Hall, who — in less than a year within her first full-term in office — was able to push the bill through.
Hall carried a "passion" for seeing the bill's passage, said State Rep. Vernon G. Smith, and she "wasn't willing to give up."
"The time is before us to show what we believe — that justice and equality must continue to prevail, not only as individuals, but as the greatest nation in this world," Hall said in the Indianapolis News, a month before her measure was signed into law.
Katie Hall's rise to Congress
One of 12 children, Hall was born in Mound Bayou, Miss., in 1938.
Her parents were farmers without much money, Hrachovec said, so when Hall showed up to Mississippi Valley State with just $5 in her pocket seeking a bachelor’s degree, she persuaded admissions to accept her on a payment plan.
She graduated in 1960 and later attended IU Bloomington in pursuit of a master’s, which she completed in 1968.
In Gary, with her husband and three children, Hall built a career as a teacher at the local high school.
Smith, who lived in Gary in the early 70s, about five blocks away from Hall, said he often crossed paths with her. He taught at the elementary school there.
Hall had always been interested in politics, Hrachovec said. The career path didn't seem an option to Hall, who grew up in the deep south in the 1930s and 1940s – until she met Richard Hatcher, Indiana’s first Black mayor, whom she helped campaign for his mayoral race.
In 1972, Hall ran for state House of Representatives, lost, ran again in 1974, and won.
She then served in the state senate from 1976-82. When Indiana 1st Congressional District Rep. Adam Benjamin Jr., a Democrat, died suddenly that year, Democrats nominated Hall to serve the remainder of his term.
At the time, then-mayor Hatcher was head of the Democratic Committee.
Hall won, becoming the first Black woman from Indiana to serve in Congress, an achievement Hrachovec described as “huge.”
Shortly after, Hall was reelected to serve a full term in the 98th Congress.
Making history with a holiday
On July 29, 1983, Rep. Hall introduced the King Holiday legislation, H.R. 3706, to the floor.
It was an effort historically met by opposition.
Whether it was because Congress was comprised of mostly white men; or because some members believed it would be too costly; or because King was thought to be a Communist, following his stance on Vietnam; or because fears that making King’s birthday a federal holiday might elevate his status to the level of George Washington – every bill brought forth prior to Hall had fallen short, Hrachovec said.
The closest the measure came to passing, she said, was in 1979, when King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and The King Center, really made a push for the holiday. Scott King garnered over six million signatures on a petition, brought it to the floor and argued it herself before Congress.
Martin Luther King Jr.: How did MLK Day become a federal holiday? Here's the history
In the end, it died in the House five votes short.
Following the defeat of the bill and rising national attention, Stevie Wonder released "Happy Birthday," in support of enacting a national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, according to The King Center.
Public support generated that year helped Hall, Hrachovec said. Seventeen states honored MLK Day up to this point.
“Hall spent the early part of 1983,” Hrachovec said, “putting in the work on Capitol Hill to understand public perception."
The holiday bill passed the House Aug. 2, 1983, a day filled with emotional responses in Congress, according to a story in the Indianapolis News.
"It will be a massive effort," Hall told the Indianapolis News, as she looked ahead to the Senate battle over the bill. "We're not going to rest until the job's done."
Three months later, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law, proclaiming a federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day every third Monday in January, starting in 1986.
Hrachovec said Hall’s success was driven by a firm belief that the MLK Day holiday was critical to reaffirm America’s commitment to civil rights.
Hall died on Feb. 20, 2012, in Gary. She was 73.
The Indiana Historical Society will host its Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. Events start Monday at 10 a.m. and include a children’s book reading, in addition to a presentation on Hall. Admission is free.
Contact IndyStar reporter Brandon Drenon at 317-517-3340 or BDrenon@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BrandonDrenon.
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This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: MLK Day: Effort to make a national holiday led by Indiana congresswoman