Martin Luther King Jr Day, on the third Monday in January, honors the American clergyman, activist, 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 has become a national icon in the history of American progressivism. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor.

Education

A gifted and friendly student, King attended Morehouse College, where he earned a BA in sociology. Combining a passion for racial equality with a rediscovered spirituality, King then attended Crozer Theological Seminary following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps earning a Bachelors of Divinity.

Shortly after he completed his Ph.D. in theology at Boston University in 1955, a 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 opportunity for the NAACP to bring their civil rights efforts to the forefront was before them, and they chose King to lead the successful city-wide boycott of the Montgomery transit system.

Young Civil Rights Movement

Just over a year later, King, along with over 60 other ministers and activists, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Together they coordinated non-violent protests and gave a voice to the young civil rights movement.

Through the next twelve years, King would be 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.  

Selma

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.”

HOW TO OBSERVE #MartinLutherKingJrDay

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.  Learn more about the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Watch one of the documentaries or read 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

Use #MartinLutherKingJrDay to post on social media.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR DAY HISTORY

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.

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