Last Monday (January 16) schools, businesses, and government agencies across the nation took the day off to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. While most students enjoy this day off, the meaning behind the holiday often gets overlooked.
As many of us know, MLK was a prominent leader of the 1960’s civil rights movement whose actions have tremendously impacted our country to this day.
However, the fight for MLK day to be recognized as a federal holiday was a long and strenuous one. Legislation introduced to Congress to make MLK day federally recognized began in 1968, but wasn’t officially enacted until 1986.
Stevie Wonder released a hit song “Happy Birthday” in 1980 as an ode to King’s accomplishments and as an effort to expedite the process of recognizing King’s actions at a federal level. However, some states didn’t recognize the holiday until 2000.
Dr. King is one of only three individuals to be recognized by federal holidays, the others being George Washington and Christopher Columbus.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born January 15, 1929 in Atlanta. King was one of three children of Martin Luther King Sr., the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Alberta King, a schoolteacher. King was originally named Michael, but his parents changed his name to Martin at age six.
King enrolled in Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1944 and earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology. King then attended seminary school at the Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, PA. In 1953, King completed his Ph.D. in systematic theology at Boston University.
After completing his doctorate, King returned to the south and became a pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL as he was recently married to Coretta Scott King.
King’s first notable protest was a 382 day boycott of Montgomery’s city bus lines. The protest of bus segregation led King to be arrested several times as he faced violent harassment, including the bombing of his home. His efforts can be accredited to the Supreme Court decision in 1956 that banned bus discrimination and declared any form of segregation as unconstitutional.
As King’s activism became widespread across the country, he began to connect with other civil rights figures. In 1957, he created and was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The SCLC helped other communities organize their own protests against discrimination.
In 1960, King became a co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church after finishing his first book: Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.
In Birmingham of 1963, mass protests against unfair hiring practices and segregation erupted throughout the city. The dehumanizing acts of police brutality that the protesters faced brought major attention to racial discrimination across the US.
MLK was arrested the night of the Birmingham Protests and wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which he famously wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King responded to critics who disagreed with his protesting by explaining how he had a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action rather than waiting for change to occur.
A few months after his arrest in Birmingham, King delivered his most historic and influential “I Have a Dream Speech” at the March on Washington. He was awarded Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 1963, and only a few months later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person to receive the award up until that time.
King continued to fight for racial equality by leading the Selma-to-Montgomery Freedom March and launched more programs in northern states. King had begun organizing plans for impoverished people and called attention to poor, unorganized workers who were fighting for unions and raises.
April 4, 1968, King was shot and killed while on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis. This devastating assassination led to tremendous uproar and violence throughout the United States. King had planned for further protesting and organizing to combat racial inequality and classism, and his death was a devastating shock.
Coretta Scott King founded the King Center soon after her husband’s death. This organization advocates for social justice initiatives while honoring Dr. King’s activism.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is one that will continue to thrive and never be forgotten. His courageousness and resilience is honored through his holiday, and it is important that we use this day to “reflect on the principles of racial equality and non violent social change espoused by Dr. King,” read the Act that created the holiday.
This day is not intended to be just another day off but a day to self-reckon and understand the importance of King’s activism and activism of people of color who have helped better our nation.