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How did Martin Luther King Jr. Day become a federal holiday?

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A 1962 photo of Martin Luther King Jr. being interviewed and surrounded by reporters during a public address in Birmingham, Alabama.

Right now in Milwaukee, temperatures are hovering around (and below) zero degrees. The roads are treacherously icy, and a collective plea echoes through the city, urging people to stay home unless absolutely necessary.

As a dog parent, navigating these frigid conditions adds an extra layer of challenge. So this past week, as I regrettably ventured out in the cold with my furry companions, one thing was on my mind: “Thank god we have Monday off.” Then, as I thought about enjoying winter from a safe distance while watching Fargo, it dawned on me that I didn’t know how Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a given every third Monday of January.

I’m a ’90s kid, so the history textbooks I encountered during my education often presented one-dimensional interpretations of American history. That included one of the most towering civil-rights icons in American history, whose legacy was often reduced to a speech and sometimes just four words: “I have a dream.”

Today’s challenges in education make learning about Dr. King even more difficult. In certain states and educational institutions, Critical Race Theory faces scrutiny and attempts to curtail its teaching. Education Week reports that since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or implemented measures aimed at restricting the instruction of Critical Race Theory.

This includes Wisconsin. In 2022, the Wisconsin Senate, led by Republicans, passed a bill aiming to prohibit teaching about the harms of racism in the state's K-12 schools. Governor Tony Evers, however, vetoed the bill.

So in a time when understanding how racism has shaped public policy faces new roadblocks, where does that leave educating the next generation about Dr. King? How did I go so long without knowing that the holiday wasn't recognized and fully celebrated in all 50 states until the year 2000? And how did Stevie Wonder play a role? On this episode of Uniquely Milwaukee, I dive into history to get the answers.

Audio Storyteller | Radio Milwaukee