Why Isn’t There a Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Coin?

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has his own holiday (although some states have combined it with holidays recognizing people who were antithetical to his beliefs and teachings).

He has his own postage stamps.

He has schools, monuments, songs and in most cities, he has his own street — although they don’t always have the best rep.

One thing he doesn’t have is a U.S. Mint-issued coin. Why is that?

To be fair, the Mint has honored King in other ways. In 2016, then-Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew announced King would be featured on the back of the $5 bill as part of a re-design of several dollar bills aimed at honoring important Black historical figures, most notably Harriet Tubman replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20. Additionally, the Mint sells a bronze-based replica of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded posthumously to King and his wife, Coretta Scott King.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King Bronze Medal

Over the last several decades, there have been several proposed bills to authorize the Mint to design either circulating or commemorative coins honoring King. In 1973, Representative Andrew Young (D-GA) proposed a bill authorizing the creation of silver dollar coins commemorating the life of King, his close friend and colleague in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. According to GovTrack, the bill never received a vote from the full House and died without ever reaching committee.

Next up was Representative Charlie Rangel (D-NY), who tried several times to re-design the existing dollar coin to feature King. In 1995, he got 33 of his colleagues to sponsor a bill to do that, but like Young’s earlier proposal, it never went anywhere. Rangel re-introduced the bill in 2003 and 2005, but by then there was another effort underway that seemed to have more momentum.

From 2000-2004, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Representative Jim Leach (R-IA) introduced several bills to design commemorative MLK coins. Landrieu’s bill, which she submitted for consideration in 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2004, proposed a commemorative silver dollar. Her bills tended to have at least some bipartisan support — at least as far as the co-sponsor list went. For instance, the 2004 bill had 28 co-sponsors (16 Democrats and 12 Republicans) and her 2001 effort had 26 (17 D, 9 R). That may not seem like a lot, but the Morgan/Peace Dollar Commemorative Bills passed with far fewer co-sponsors.

The great Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza said, ‘‘If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past.’’ This legislation not only ensures we are able to preserve and study our past, but also honors Dr. King, who played such an integral role in shaping both our present and our future.

Senator Mary Landrieu, October 11, 2000

Despite that, her bills never got a vote. I have no idea why and reached out to her at her law firm to see if she could shed any light on this, but never heard back. My best guess is that, based on her co-sponsor list, she had a good mix of ideologies (conservatives like Rick Santorum and liberals like Jack Reed signed on) and Senators who were, personally, influential (Harry Reid, Ted Stevens, and both Senators from King’s home state of Georgia). But she didn’t have a lot of co-sponsors who sat on the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over coinage matters.

By contrast, the successful effort to mint a coin commemorating the Negro Baseball Leagues had virtually the entire Senate Banking Committee roster as co-sponsors, including the chair (Mike Crapo, R-ID) and ranking member (Sherrod Brown, D-OH). Meanwhile, the aforementioned Morgan/Peace Dollar effort was co-sponsored by Chairman Crapo, and Catherine Cortez Matso, the ranking member for the Banking subcommittee on Economic Policy, which actually oversees coinage matters. Maybe that made a difference?

Or not. On the House side, Leach was Chairman of the Financial Services Committee when he proposed his bill in 2000. Leach had been involved with the effort to memorialize King before. In 1978, he had helped pass a bill in the House to strike medals commemorating King and his ideals. “It is very clear that Dr. King is not only a symbol for Blacks as well as other Americans, but for the entire world,” he said during hearings for the bill, which died in the Senate.

In 2000, he gave it another go. Unlike Landrieu’s bill, Leach’s directed the Treasury to mint commemorative $5 gold coins, $1 silver dollars and standard copper-nickel clad half dollars. Despite getting 138 co-sponsors (101 Democrats and 37 Republicans), the bill never got a vote before the full House. He tried again in 2001 and 2003 and got even more co-sponsors (148 for the 2001 bill and 249 for 2003). But once again, neither bill got a vote (Leach told me he doesn’t remember why the bills didn’t get a vote in the House).

Since then, there haven’t been any more legislative efforts to authorize the striking of a King commemorative coin. The closest was a coin issued in 2014 marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act that contained a design inspired by a King quote. In a way, it’s appropriate, given how instrumental he was in getting the act passed.

One non-legislative proposal I found intriguing was from the Institute for Small Town Studies. They called for putting MLK on the obverse of the Lincoln penny while modifying the Lincoln Memorial design on the reverse to include the crowd from “I Have a Dream” speech. I quite like the reverse design idea and think it could work with with a better obverse image (I assume the one ISTS used on its website is a mockup or point of reference more than an actual design).

Ultimately, this all just reinforces the fact they he doesn’t have his own coin here in the U.S.A. He has them in other countries, such as the Cook Islands, Liberia, the UAE and others. Private mints in the U.S. and abroad have also struck their own MLK rounds — often using colorized portraits and anyone who knows me knows how much I hate colorized coins.

Cook Islands MLK Commemorative Coin

Considering how difficult it is to get anything passed in Congress these days, I assume there won’t be another effort to get King his own coin anytime soon. Plus, as we’ve seen with all of the alternate MLK holidays, it’s clear that he remains a polarizing and controversial figure in some circles. Then again, his 100th birthday is coming up in 2029…