Honoring MLK: King Day celebration is incomplete without economic focus

by Deborah Douglas

Many Americans are reeling from the Capitol siege by homegrown terrorists in defiance of hard-won voting rights for African Americans. At the same time, the upcoming annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration begs one to wonder: Whose country is this anyway?

The U.S. stock market’s delayed embrace of the federal holiday celebrating the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one way to link King’s economic agenda to the capitol of capital. New interviews with two people connected to that decision reveal how Martin Luther King Day became fully realized when the New York Stock Exchange voted to close the markets in observance.

The idea to make King’s birthday a federal holiday was introduced in 1968 through legislation by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan. It took 11 years for the bill to come up for a vote in the House of Representatives in 1979, but it fell short of the two-thirds votes necessary to pass.

Recording artist Stevie Wonder recorded a new version of the “Happy Birthday” song in 1981 to promote the King holiday. Many Black families today prefer to sing his version during birthday celebrations. President Ronald Reagan signed a bill on November 2, 1983, designating the third Monday in January as Martin Luther King Day, and the first King Day was celebrated in 1986. King is one of only three people (including Christopher Columbus and George Washington) given a dedicated U.S. holiday, though Washington’s birthday on February 22 is now honored on Presidents’ Day, the third Monday in February.

However, even after the bill making King’s birthday an official federal holiday was signed into law, King’s birthday wasn’t celebrated everywhere.

It wasn’t until the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) board of directors — at the suggestion of civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and his son, Jonathan L. Jackson, a businessman who has worked in finance — voted to close the markets on King Day that things got real. When the markets closed, corporate America took the day off, in turn. On January 19, 1998, both the NYSE and the Nasdaq Stock Market would take the full day off for the first time.

The randomness of the King Day celebration became regarded as a day of service.

When the federal law took effect, King’s birthday was observed in an optional patchwork fashion in cities and states across the country, according to Jonathan Jackson, national spokesman for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. It took until 2000 for all 50 states to designate King’s birthday a holiday with New Hampshire and South Carolina being the last states to make it a paid holiday. Jesse Jackson’s hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, was among the last to make MLK Day a holiday. The Greenville County Council voted four times and didn’t approve the holiday until February 1, 2005, with a vote of 8-5.

The Jacksons and Richard A. “Dick” Grasso, chairman and chief executive of the New York Stock Exchange from 1995 to 2003, were meeting when the King holiday issue came up.

“My father’s focus has been on economic justice, from Operation Breadbasket on, not only just integrating the counter but being able to purchase at the counter,” said Jonathan Jackson, recalling images of the sit-in movement in the 1960s. “So, the idea was we have to look at the capital of capital — New York City.”

While organizing the first-ever Rainbow PUSH Black Wall Street Economic Summit in 1997, Jonathan Jackson was thinking of how to best honor King at the event held annually in New York City. His father wanted to put the focus on economic inclusion, as King did. During a meeting with Grasso, Citigroup Chairman Sanford “Sandy” Weill and others at NYSE headquarters, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, at the request of Jonathan, asked Chairman Grasso why the market continued to be open on the King holiday.

Grasso told this writer, “It was a terrific idea, that I would take it to my board with my recommendation that we do so, and it was as simple as that.”

Grasso noted that the NYSE was a private member organization, and he’d have to poll the members about going beyond a mere moment of silence to observe MLK Day and consider closing the market. The members voted unanimously to honor King.

This was groundbreaking. (The markets did close for King’s funeral in April 1968.)

“In those days, over 100 million people viewed the opening and closing bell,” Grasso said. “When you make a decision not to open the market in reverence to Dr. King, people stand up and pay attention.”

Today, Martin Luther King Day is typically observed as a day of service, but the Rev. Jackson urges Americans to also stay true to King’s call for economic and political transformation.

“King was about empowerment and social change, not just social service,” said the Rev. Jackson. “We should be obsessed with voter registration; it is a measure of our political power. We begin to grow in conscience when we vote.”

Jonathan Jackson said the shift informs how we honor our nation’s founders.

“I've always had an issue with the Confederate statues. Many of them should never have been erected,” he said. “The people that lost the Civil War are honored, and people who brought honor and nobility to our nation never got recognized.”

King’s contribution is a continuation of a revolutionary through line as leader of a third revolution in American history, according to Jonathan Jackson. The first revolution was when George Washington said the United States is no longer a colony, but an independent nation. The second was when Abraham Lincoln brought the South and North together. The third was when King led a generation of freedom fighters to redetermine who could vote and “who could participate in democracy.”

The fight for economic justice is the fourth revolution that must take place, said Jonathan. That will take another mind (and policy) shift that includes addressing issues such as segregated financial markets, the dearth of Black Fortune 500 CEOs and valuing the contributions of workers.

“I'm looking at King as one of America's founding fathers. We couldn't celebrate 1619, we couldn't celebrate 1776. The democracy we're most proud of is 1965, not 1776,” Jonathan explained.

Deborah D. Douglas is the Eugene E. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University and author of "U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler's Guide to the People, Places and Events That Made the Movement" (Moon Travel, 2021).