Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an American federal holiday to celebrate the life and work of the great influential civil rights leader. Martin Luther King Jr. is most well-known for striving for racial equality and ending racial segregation on public transportation in the United States. Observed on the third Monday of January, it is important to remember the significance of his achievements. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929 to a pastor and former schoolteacher, and had an older sister and a younger brother. King was a bright student and was admitted to Morehouse College at age 15, studying medicine and law. Under the guidance of an influential theologian and racial equality advocate, King followed his father’s footsteps and entered into a seminary and earned an esteemed fellowship. After completing a graduate and doctorate program in Boston, King met Coretta Scott whom he had married, had four children with, and then moved to Montgomery, Alabama.
The city was a rapidly increasing epicenter for American civil rights in 1954, and on December 1 of 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move from her bus seat for a white passenger, leading to her arrest. For the next381 days, activists boycotted buses causing huge economic strains on business owners and the public transit system, and elected King as their leader and spokesperson. In 1956, the Supreme Court ruled segregated seating unconstitutional; however, King had already become an inspiration for organized and nonviolent resistance. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was a group determined to achieve full equality for African Americans, and as president, King met with political and religious leaders and gave speeches on civil rights and nonviolent protest.
In 1960, King and his family moved to Atlanta where he served as co-pastor with his father at the localBaptist church, while still being involved in SCLC. In 1963, the Birmingham campaign protested segregation and other inequalities in the form of boycotts, sit-ins, and marches in one of the most divided cities in America, and King was arrested for his involvement. While in jail, he wrote the civil rights manifesto “Letters from Birmingham Jail” in defense of civil disobedience. On August 28, 1963, the March on Washington brought together some 200,000 to 300,000 participants rallying to show the injustices African Americans still faced, and Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech calling for equality and peace on the Lincoln Memorial steps. Later that year, TIME magazine named King Man of the Year and in 1964, King was the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Spring of 1965 brought a voter registration campaign by the SCLC and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Selma, Alabama, which took a turn for the worse when violence broke out between white segregationists and peaceful demonstrators. Led by King and supported by President Lyndon Johnson, inspired supporters and those outraged from the event’s television broadcast gathered in Selma to march to Montgomery. In August, all African Americans were granted the right to vote with Congress’ passing of the Voting Rights Act.
Throughout the late 1960s King addressed other issues such as poverty among all American races and the Vietnam War, and in 1967, he and the SCLC started the Poor People’s Campaign and marched to Washington. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was supporting a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee when he was assassinated while standing on his motel’s balcony. Shortly after his death, riots began in a number of major cities throughout the U.S. and President Johnson declared a national day of mourning. Pushed by campaigns by activists, Coretta Scott King, and members of Congress, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill in 1983 making a U.S. federal holiday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.
First celebrated in 1986, Martin Luther King Jr. Day will forever be a date to reflect on the activist, humanitarian, and leader who dedicated his life to attaining equality and justice for Americans of all colors.