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King Day becomes more than a private observance for blacks

When Americans celebrate Monday, Jan. 20, 1986, in tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it will be the first official holiday recognizing a black American.

This recognition climaxes an ongoing battle by blacks to be recognized as an integral part of American achievement. It makes Dr. King's birthday (actually Jan. 15) more than a private observance or a local holiday in some 17 states and 30 cities.

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Since the Civil War, blacks in many parts of the country have celebrated a holiday of their own, which they call Emancipation Day. It was often held either Jan. 1 or, in a number of Southern and Southwestern states, on ''Juneteenth,'' June 19.

''It was on that day [June 19, 1863] that slaves in my home state, Oklahoma, and some other slave states, first learned that they had been freed by Abraham Lincoln in his Emancipation Proclamation,'' recalls Boston television newscaster Carmen Fields.

''And I can't forget it because as a little girl I always wanted to go to the amusement park in Tulsa. Juneteenth was the only day of the year that park opened to black people, but mother refused to take us there. She said it should be opened to us every day it was open to anybody else. She didn't like the idea of a 'colored day.' So I never went there.''

President Reagan plans to sign the bill passed recently by Congress making the third Monday in January a national holiday.

''Isn't it marvelous?'' beams Elma Lewis, president of the National Center for Afro-American Artists, a national cultural movement, and founder of the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Boston.

''At last and finally this country as a whole recognizes a person who strove to implement the American dream. This is a tribute to Coretta [King's widow] for her stamina and vision to continue the battle, and to John Conyers for his persistence in seeking legislation.''

Representative Conyers (D) of Michigan has introduced a King holiday bill to the House every year since Dr. King was assassinated in 1968.

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One version of the King holiday bill - creating a Sunday observance - was almost passed, but Conyers and the Congressional Black Caucus vehemently opposed it. ''We want a special holiday for Dr. King,'' the Detroit congressman protested. The bill was withdrawn.

Before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, blacks also observed Black (Negro) History Week in February, timed to include Feb. 12, Abraham Lincoln's birthday, and Feb. 14, chosen by black abolitionist Frederick Douglass as his birthday. February is now Black History Month, established by the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History.

In the 1970s ''black power'' militants adopted their own black holidays. These days include: Jan. 15, King Day; Feb. 21, Black Heroes Day (or Feb. 23 as the birthday of Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, a civil rights leader); May 19, Unity Day and birthday of Malcolm X, militant ''black Muslim'' spokesman; June 16, Harriett Tubman (black abolitionist) Day; and Dec. 26-Jan. 1, Kwanza, an Africa-oriented holiday season.

And there are special days. Once a year - March 6 - black people gather at a busy intersection in downtown Boston, less than a block from City Hall, at noonday. They observe Equal Rights Day, in honor of the ''first American black hero,'' Crispus Attucks, said to be one of four martyrs of the ''Boston Massacre'' in 1775. Other individuals, Mary McLeod Bethune, SoJourner Truth, and local black trailblazers are honored in various communities.

How should King Day be observed?

''Not as just another day off, but with reverence rather than revelry,'' says Elma Lewis.

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