Welcome to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the most controversial holiday of the year.

If you thought it was just another day when government agencies get nothing done, you're selling it short. That happens most days of the week. MLK Jr. Day has a place in history that's almost as special as the man himself.

For starters, it was 14 years in the making. First proposed in 1969, one year after King's assassination, it didn't come before Congress for 10 years -- and then it failed by five votes in the House of Representatives. One of the arguments in opposition was the added cost to the government of another paid holiday. (That was back when elected officials still cared about deficits.)

After four years and a monumental petition drive -- an estimated 6 million people signed nationwide -- legislation easily cleared both the House and Senate and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. Of course, it didn't go into effect until 1986. No sense rushing things.

Even when it was official, not every state celebrated the holiday.

North Carolina Sens. Jesse Helms and John Porter East, both Republicans, were among the most outspoken detractors, citing King's opposition to the Vietnam War -- who could find fault with the Vietnam War? -- and his alleged association with communists, the key word being "alleged."


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Some argued that King's accomplishments didn't measure up for such an honor. All he did was give his life for the cause of civil rights. Others said only presidents deserved their own holidays, apparently not wanting to diminish the distinction accorded President Christopher Columbus. (You knew he was president, right?)

The two states that held out longest -- New Hampshire and Arizona -- finally changed course only after coming under considerable pressure. The turning point for Arizona might have been when the National Football League, in protest, relocated Super Bowl XXVII from Phoenix to Pasadena. Super Bowls aren't easy to get.

Arizona was recalcitrant even then. It referred to the holiday as "Civil Rights Day" until 2000, before finally stepping in line with the rest of the country.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day has taken on added meaning in recent years. It now is known as a day of service -- "a day on, not off," as the saying goes -- when Americans are urged to volunteer their time to the betterment of their communities.

Philadelphia pioneered the concept -- 100,000 volunteers there participated in 1,500 projects last year -- but it now is common practice across the country. These are a few of the examples in the East Bay:

The Women's Initiative in Concord will organize assistance for women with startup companies who need help with filing, cleaning and other office chores.

Red Cross units in Pleasant Hill and Pleasanton will open their doors to blood donors who are least 17 years old and in good health.

The operators of Mare Island Historic Museum in Vallejo will welcome help in rehabilitating their facility.

Shepherd Canyon, Dimond and Peralta Hacienda Historic parks in Oakland will ask volunteers to weed, mulch and clean the grounds.

There are 10 federal holidays on the calendar, beginning with New Year's Day and ending with Christmas, but none of them generated the controversy -- nor faced the opposition -- this one did.

In many regards, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is just like the man.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.