Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is celebrated in the United States on the third Monday of January each year. It is a recognized holiday in all fifty states. Who was Martin Luther King, Jr. and why is there a holiday to celebrate his life and accomplishments?

Martin’s Childhood

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. He was the first son of Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. Martin had an older sister and a younger brother. Martin’s name at birth was Michael King. His father too was named Michael King at that time. In 1934, Martin’s father chose to change his name and his son’s in honor of Martin Luther, a famous German minister of the 16th Century.

As a child Martin enjoyed singing and was encouraged by his mother who was a church organist, singer and choir director. She took Martin to many churches to sing. Martin also joined the junior choir at his own church.

Martin became friends with a boy whose father owned a business near Martin’s home. When the boys were age six they attended different schools due to segregation, a separation that occurred because Martin was black and his friend was white. Martin eventually lost this friend when the friend’s father no longer allowed them to play together.

Martin became well known for his public speaking ability when he was a student at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta. Martin was an excellent student and skipped two grades, entering college at the young age of 15.

Martin’s Early Career

In 1947, while a student at Morehouse College Martin decided to enter the ministry. In 1948 he graduated from Morehouse with a bachelor's degree in sociology. He earned a second bachelor’s degree, in divinity, from Crosier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania in 1951. Martin received his Ph.D. in theology from Boston University in 1955.

In 1953 Martin married Coretta Scott, with whom he later had four children. He became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. Martin often taught church attendees that it is important to treat others as they themselves would like to be treated, and that it is important to solve problems without resorting to violence.

In 1955, two black women, Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks, refused to give up their bus seats to white passengers, as they were required to do by law. When Rosa Parks was arrested, Martin led a boycott that lasted for 385 days. This was known as The Montgomery Bus Boycott. During this period Martin was arrested and jailed for the first time in his life. The boycott situation became so tense that Martin’s house was bombed. Fortunately no one was harmed.

The bus boycott ended in 1956 when a United States District Court ruled that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. Martin’s work on the bus boycott made him a national figure, and he became the best known spokesman of the civil rights movement.

Martin and the Civil Rights Movement

Martin brought his non-violent philosophy to his work as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. Martin and other civil rights activists created the group as a way to organize black churches to work together to hold non-violent protests for civil rights reforms.

During his time with the SCLC, which he led until his death, Martin organized and led marches for several basic civil rights. Among these were blacks’ right to vote, desegregation, and the rights of workers.

Throughout his adult life, Martin was criticized by many, including those who wanted him to be more forceful in his approach and those who did not want the changes he was seeking. Martin was jailed 29 times during his involvement in the civil rights protests.

Martin believed that media coverage of the non-violent protests he led would help gain support from Americans throughout the country. He was right. Written accounts of the indignities suffered by blacks and televised footage of violence against the protestors convinced many Americans of the importance of the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1963 the SCLC, with Martin leading, joined other civil rights groups to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It took place on August 28, 1963. The marchers called on the federal government to end racial segregation in schools, enact a law ending racial discrimination in employment, and to protect civil rights workers from police brutality, among other demands.

The march was a huge success. President John F. Kennedy, who at first opposed the march but later supported it, was worried that it would be difficult to get 10,000 people to attend. However, more than a quarter million people of diverse ethnicities attended the event! At the time, it was the largest gathering of protestors in Washington, D.C.’s history.

It was during the March on Washington that Martin gave what has become his most famous speech, “I Have A Dream”. In this speech Martin mentioned that he hoped his four children would have a better future.

The success of the March on Washington and the inspiration of Martin’s speech propelled civil rights to the top of the agenda for many leaders. This led to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, or national origin. In addition, it ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public. On October 14, 1964, Martin received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Martin’s Later Years

While the Civil Rights Act was a powerful law, the power given to enforce the law was weak in the beginning. Martin continued to travel the country to protest inequalities suffered by blacks in housing and voting. He also led protests on behalf of poor Americans and against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

On April 3, 1968 Martin gave a speech in Memphis, Tennessee in support of black workers who sought higher wages and better working conditions. On April 4, while standing on the balcony of his Memphis motel room, Martin was shot by James Earl Ray, who later pled guilty to the crime and was sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison. Martin Luther King, Jr. passed away at the age of 39.

A National Holiday to Celebrate Martin’s Life and Work

As early as 1971, several cities and states began to establish annual holidays to honor Martin. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill to create a federal holiday to honor Martin. Held for the first time on January 20, 1986, it is officially called Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In 1992, President George HW. Bush signed a proclamation setting the third Monday of January each year as the official day on which the holiday is observed.
January 17, 2000 marked the first time Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was observed in all 50 states, as it is to this day. Federal and state offices as well as all public schools are closed, and communities honor Martin with parades, prayer services, speeches and other special events.