MARTIN LUTHER KING JR DAY
Martin Luther King Jr Day, always observed on the third Monday in January, honors the American clergyman, activist, and Civil Rights Movement leader.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.(January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience. King is a national icon in the history of American progressivism. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor.
A gifted, friendly student, King attended Morehouse College, where he earned a BA in sociology. Combining a passion for racial equality with his Christian spirituality, King later attended Crozer Theological Seminary, following in both his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps by earning a Bachelors of Divinity. He then completed his Ph.D. in theology at Boston University in 1955
As conflicts over the social system requiring people of color give up their seats on the bus to white people heated up, the NAACP and King became involved. When 42-year-old Rosa Parks (See Rosa Parks Day, which is observed December 1) refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, the event became not only newsworthy but a galvanizing event for the civil rights movement. King was chosen to lead the successful city-wide boycott of the Montgomery transit system.
Early Civil Rights Movement
Just over a year later, King, along with over 60 other ministers and activists, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Together the SCLC coordinated non-violent protests and gave an eloquent voice to the young civil rights movement.
Throughout the next twelve years, King was influential in organizing marches, sit-ins, and political rallies for civil rights. During a 1963 March on Washington, D.C. for Jobs and Freedom, King spoke before more than 200,000 regarding the challenges African Americans face.
His “I Have a Dream” speech has gone down in many history books as one of the greatest speeches ever given. Brutally honest, a call to action, and a vision of hope, King’s speech resonated throughout the nation then (and now).
In early 1964, during a march outside Selma, 1,500 men and women met a wall of state troopers. There, King led the marchers in prayer and successfully avoided any confrontation with authorities.
On July 2, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. That same year, King became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his unswerving work in the Civil Rights Movement.
In early 1965, Selma, Alabama, became the center of the Civil Rights movement. A new voting rights legislation was introduced in Congress. It proposed banning literacy tests and mandating federal oversight where tests were administered. Additionally, it gave the U.S. attorney general the duty of challenging the use of poll taxes for state and local elections.
Televised violence in February of that year resulted in the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. King’s presence and President Johnson’s support of the marchers helped bring peace. Throughout the next month, marchers continued between Selma and Montgomery. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in August of that year.
Author, speaker, father, theologian, activist. King died on April 4, 1968, when James Earl Ray assassinated him in Memphis, Tennessee. King arrived in Memphis with other SCLC members in support of a sanitation workers’ strike. They were staying at the Lorraine Motel when Ray’s bullet struck King on the balcony. Riots and violence would follow, and President Johnson would call for peace, referring to King as the “apostle of nonviolence.”
The married father left behind a wife and four children. His widow Coretta Scott King was instrumental in continuing his legacy and the creation of the holiday to honor him, his work, and the future of the civil rights movement.
Many schools, businesses, and government offices are closed during Martin Luther King Jr Day. Schools hold programs or teach curricula engaging students in Civil Rights history and lessons throughout the week.
One unusual featgure of MLK Day is the focus on Service. Observers are encouraged to serve their community to further civil rights for all. Learn more about the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by watching one of the documentaries or reading one of the books listed below:
- King: A Filmed Record – Montgomery to Memphis.
- Freedom Riders
- The Children’s March
- The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson
- Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference By David Garrow
- Freedom’s Daughters by Lynne Olson
While President Ronald Reagan signed the established observance into law in 1983, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first observed as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986.