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The American flag with the words Martin Luther King Jr Day, written over the top.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Posted on: January 12, 2023

Who was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr?

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, to Father Martin Luther King Sr., a pastor, and Mother Alberta Williams King, a former schoolteacher. The middle child of three, King had an older sister Christine and a younger brother Alfred. Martin Luther King was an accomplished student growing up and, after excelling throughout school, ended up following in his father's footsteps as a minister.

Despite not intending to join the ministry as his father did, Martin Luther King became inspired at his college Morehouse under the mentorship of Dr. Benjamin Mays, a distinguished theologian and prominent activist for racial equality.

After graduating from Morehouse in 1948, MLK studied at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. He graduated from there with a Bachelor of Divinity degree and was awarded a prestigious fellowship. In his senior year, Martin Luther King was also elected president of his predominantly white class.

Later in 1951, MLK enrolled at Boston University, where he received a doctorate in systematic theology. Boston is also where he met his wife, Coretta Scott, a singer studying at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott got married in 1953 and had four children: Yolanda Denise King, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott King, and Bernice Albertine King.

The Kings moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where they found themselves in a severely racially unequal society. The city was distinctly segregated and would become the focal point of America's desperate struggle for equality.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

On Dec 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks courageously refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger in Montgomery, it led to her being unfairly arrested. In response, Martin Luther King Jr., who was pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was selected to lead The Montgomery Bus Boycott, where activists coordinated a bus boycott that ensued for 381 days. As many bus passengers were black, this greatly strained the public transit system!

This foundational event in the civil rights movement in the United States led to a Supreme Court decision that declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws that segregated buses to be unconstitutional.

Rosa Parks smiled at the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Martin Luther King stood in the distance behind her.

Letter From Birmingham Jail

In 1960 King and his family moved back to the city where MLK was born, Atlanta. Martin Luther King became co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church alongside his father, Martin Luther King Sr. MLK continued to use his eloquent approach and nonviolent message to influence positive change within the civil rights movement in America and was thus involved in many of the most prominent civil rights battles of the 1960s.

However, MLK's nonviolent approach was harshly pushed to the brink in one of America's most racially divided cities during the Birmingham campaign of 1963. Activists employed a mixture of boycotting, sit-ins, and marches to protest segregation, discriminatory hiring practices, and many other injustices that were happening in the city.

Martin Luther King was arrested for his involvement in the nonviolent protest on April 12. On April 16, he wrote what’s referred to as the "Letter from Birmingham Jail” from the Birmingham jail cell where he was imprisoned.

In response to being referred to as an "outsider", he wrote the famous line, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

The letter has been quoted as "one of the most important historical documents penned by a modern political prisoner" and is regarded as a classic document of civil disobedience. It is viewed as one of the most influential texts in the civil rights movement in America.

Martin Luther King in handcuffs and pushed against a table by two white police officers.

March on Washington

On August 28, 1963, later that same year, Martin Luther King Jr. worked with several civil rights and religious organizations to arrange the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Viewed as a watershed moment for the American civil rights movement, The March on Washington was a peaceful political protest attended by an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people who wanted to shed light on the ongoing injustices happening to black people in America! It is seen as one of the deciding factors in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Thousands of peaceful protestors march for equality in Washington during the civil rights movement.

"I Have a Dream" Speech

MLK's most known speech took place at the March on Washington. The famous "I Have a Dream" speech was a passionate plea for peace and equality that many consider a masterpiece of rhetoric.

Whilst standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, who had a century earlier abolished slavery in the United States, MLK shared his vision with the crowd and the watching world when he powerfully stated, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Despite his many other contributions to the civil rights movement, this speech given at The March for Freedom, catapulted Martin Luther King's reputation both nationally and internationally; later that year, TIME Magazine named MLK as "Man of the Year" and, in 1964, Martin Luther King became, the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1965, Martin Luther King's influence garnered international attention to major violence occurring between white segregationists and peaceful protestors in Selma, Alabama, who had organized a campaign for voter registration rights!

The horrific onslaught was broadcast to the nation; for many Americans, it was too much to bear. MLK led an inspired march with supporters from across the country known as the Selma to Montgomery march. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in federal troops to keep the peace, and in August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which granted African-Americans the right to vote.

Martin Luther King, delivering his famous  I have a dream Speech at the March on Washington

April 4, 1968 - A Nation in Mourning.

While standing on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Martin Luther King was fatally shot on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. In the wake of his death, riots swept across the country, and President Johnson declared a National Day of Mourning. Although a man named James Earl Ray confessed to the murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He later went on to withdraw his confession, and speculation remains for some as to what happened that day.

Friends and family attend the funeral of Martin Luther King

Is Martin Luther King Day a national holiday?

On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed The King Holiday Bill into law. Designating the third Monday in January as a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King. President Bill Clinton then signed the King Holiday and Service Act into law on August 23, 1994. Together Congressman John Lewis and Senator Harris Wofford introduced the legislation. The idea was to spur Americans to use the day by engaging in activities to improve their communities. Congressman Lewis' initiative to make the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday "a day on, not a day off" makes MLK Day the only federal holiday regarded as a National Day of Service instead of rest! This year (2023), MLK Day will be celebrated on January 16, a day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s official birthday. However, writing the MLK Day bill into law took a lot of persistence and campaigning.

The 15-Year Battle for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

The legislation recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day was introduced just four days after his assassination on April 4, 1968. Yet, MLK Day wasn't approved by the federal government for 15 years and wasn't recognized in all 50 states for 17 years following the legislation’s initial introduction. Although there was a widespread desire to create a national holiday to celebrate Martin Luther King, the process took years and received little congressional support. The bill was first proposed on April 8, 1968, by Democratic Michigan Congressman John Conyers. Despite the difficulty, John Conyers continued to reintroduce the legislation every year with the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus, a caucus made up of primarily African American members of the United States Congress.

A quote from John Conyers about Martin Luther King Jr - "To me, [King] is the outstanding international leader of the 20th century without ever holding office. What he did — I doubt anyone else could have done."

In 1980, 12 years following the idea of a national holiday in King's name, Motown singer Stevie Wonder released a song titled "Happy Birthday," which was a tribute to Martin Luther King and his dream and served as a direct call for recognition of his achievements with a national holiday.

This public support ensued, and Stevie and Coretta Scott King spent the next three years spreading awareness. By the time the bill made it to the house floor in 1983, public support was overwhelming, despite it being 15 years since the legislation was first introduced. Coretta Scott King, John Conyers, the Congressional Black Caucus, and Stevie Wonder gathered a six million signature petition to support the holiday. As a result, the bill passed in the House following a vote of 338 to 90. Yet, despite the votes being heavily weighted in favor of the holiday, when the bill moved to the Senate, Republican North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms tried to discard the legislation by producing documents alleging that Martin Luther King had ties to the communist party. However, after a few days of debate, the bill was passed in the Senate, and President Ronald Regan signed it into law.

Nonetheless, there seemed to be an air of reluctance from the president, who stated, "I would have preferred a non-holiday in King's honor, but since they seem bent on making it a national holiday, I believe the symbolism of that day is important enough that I will sign that legislation when it reaches my desk."

Legacy

Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most outstanding civil rights leaders in America's history and became the leading voice in the nonviolent civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. was not just a social activist; King was also a Baptist minister, had two bachelor’s degrees, and a Ph. D. in systematic theology from Boston University. Dr. Martin Luther King was a Nobel Peace Prize Winner and the driving force behind watershed events, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington, which greatly encouraged the enactment of landmark legislation, including the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Martin Luther King was one of the most prominent figures in the American civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968, and he remains a highly regarded figure.

Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses the crowd at the Civil Rights March on Washington

Further Reading:

Read more about Martin Luther King and The Civil Rights Movement.