What is Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

Editorial credit: stock_photo_world / Shutterstock.com.
Editorial credit: stock_photo_world / Shutterstock.com.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a holiday celebrated in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., who was a famous 20th-century evangelist and activist who brought healing and hope to America. The holiday is observed on the third week of January on Monday to be in line with the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. on January 15th. The holiday was recognized as a national holiday by the US government after the signing of the bill by President Reagan on November 2, 1983. However, the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day was held three years later in January 1986.

Who Was Martin Luther King Jr.?

Martin Luther King Jr. was a charismatic 20th-century civil rights activist and evangelist who was famed for his quest for racial equality through peaceful activism. The father of the well-known activist was Martin Luther King Sr. and his mother was Alberta Williams King. He was born in the state of Atlanta on January 15, 1929, and later attended the Booker T. Washington High School where he sharpened his oratory skills through participating in school debates. Throughout his childhood and teenage years, young King was exposed to the racial segregation enforced in the state. Martin Luther King Jr. had witnessed his father being harassed for his race on several occasions, but in most cases the senior King was defiant. The widespread racial segregation and humiliation made the young King become depressed and even made a suicide attempt at the age of 12 by jumping off of a two-story window. Martin Luther King Jr. would later join Morehouse College where he graduated in 1948 with a B.A. in sociology and soon afterward joined the Crozer Theology Seminary from where he received his degree in 1951. Martin Luther King Jr. met his death on April 4th, 1968 after he was fatally shot by James Earl Ray.

How Was Martin Luther King Jr. Involved In The Civil Rights Movement?

Almost all the southern states had adopted the Jim Crow laws whose provisions established racial segregation in most public facilities including learning institutions, transport system and even in places of leisure. One such provision required black Americans to give up their seats to anyone white using public transportation. Rosa Parks violated the Jim Crow laws on December 1955 while on Montgomery bus after she declined to give up her seat for a white passenger and was subsequently arrested. Parks’ arrest caused a huge outrage from the black community of Montgomery. The community, led by Martin Luther King Jr. began the 385 days of boycott which led to the end of racial segregation in Montgomery's public transport. The Montgomery boycott caused Martin’s national fame to skyrocket, and he became the face of civil rights activism in the United States. Martin Luther King Jr. would later found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which was tasked in furthering the agenda of the civil rights movements through non-violent ways. King organized a series of peaceful marches in the 1960s which were aimed to have black people being accorded the right to vote, labor rights as well as the end of racial segregation. The marches influenced the decision of the United States to adopt the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Later he became the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 as recognition of his nonviolent resistance movement making him the youngest winner of the prize at the time.

How Did The Martin Luther King Jr. Day Become A National Holiday?

The idea of having a day set aside as a holiday in the remembrance of King was introduced soon after his death by the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Edward Brooke, a Massachusetts-based U.S. Senator along with John Conyers, a U.S. Representative from Michigan introduced a bill to Congress in the 1970s whose provisions called for the establishment of a holiday in remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. The bill did not receive the required majority vote with some members of Congress arguing that such a holiday would contravene the long-standing tradition of honoring citizens who held public office. Despite not passing in Congress, the bill had received enormous public popularity with famed musicians such as Stevie Wonder being vocal in their support for the establishment of the national holiday. In the early 1980s, the movement collected an estimated six million signatures for a petition to have Congress pass the bill. After the bill was reintroduced and proposed by Indiana Representative Katie Hall, it was met by the stiff opposition led by John Porter East and Jesse Helms who criticized the recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. basing their arguments on King’s earlier opposition to the Vietnam War. Jesse Helms went as far as accusing Martin Luther King Jr. as a communist by association. Then US President Ronald Reagan was also against the establishment of the national holiday with his main concerns being the cost of having an additional national holiday. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives in 1983 and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on November 2nd, 1983.

What Was The Role Of Coretta Scott King In The National Holiday?

Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr’s widow, formed the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change soon after her husband’s death in 1968 which was the first institution to call for the adoption of a holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. One of the provisions in the bill was the establishment of the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission whose mandate was to oversee the celebration of the holiday. The Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Commission is led by a panel of members of the commission. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush appointed Coretta Scott King as a member of the commission, a position she held until her death in 2006.


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