Martin Luther King Day honors the life and legacy of one of the visionary leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and recipient of the 1964 Nobel Prize for Peace.
It is celebrated on the third Monday in January.
MARTIN LUTHER KING DAY honors the life and legacy of one of the visionary leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and recipient of the 1964 Nobel Prize for Peace.
At a young age Martin Luther King, Jr. showed strong promise, skipping the 9th and 12th grades and entering Morehouse College at the age of 15. His beliefs in equality and brotherly love developed early as he listened to the sermons of his father and grandfather, both ministers.
In late 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr. received his doctorate degree in theology, and moved to Montgomery, Alabama, with his wife, Coretta Scott King, to preach at a Baptist church.
There, as in many southern states, he witnessed the indignities suffered by African Americans as a result of racism, discrimination, and unjust laws. One law required all black passengers to ride in the back of public buses and to give up their seats to white passengers when the front of the bus was full. Dr. King knew that this law violated the rights of every African-American.
On December 1, 1955, a courageous black passenger, Rosa Parks, was arrested and jailed for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. In response to the arrest, black leaders organized a boycott of the public buses in the city of Montgomery. Dr. King was asked to lead the protest. Thousands of people, black and white, refused to ride the bus; instead they formed carpools and they walked. Dr. King urged people to demonstrate peacefully and not resort to violence. Nonetheless, the demonstrators and their supporters were constantly threatened and attacked by those who did not want the system of inequality to change. Many of the demonstrators were arrested and jailed. Dr. King’s home was bombed, but fortunately, his wife and children were not injured.
Despite the violence, the boycott continued, and the bus company suffered great financial loss. Finally after 381 days the boycott of the Montgomery bus system was successful. The Supreme Court declared the state of Alabama’s segregation law unconstitutional. Rosa Parks, the woman whose small act of protest inspired the bus boycott, was later named the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”
The segregation of buses was just one of the many forms of injustice to African Americans. Schools were also segregated throughout the south, and black citizens were denied equal housing, equal pay, job opportunities, and fair voting rights. Service in many hotels and restaurants was also denied.
The bus boycott brought international attention to these inequities and to the leadership of Dr. King. The continuing struggle for justice ultimately led to the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King was at the forefront of this movement, and became seen worldwide as a symbol and voice for the cause of African Americans.
In 1957, Dr. King and other ministers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to advance the nonviolent struggle against racism. In the years that followed, Dr. King led many nonviolent demonstrations. He had studied the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and believed strongly in the power of nonviolent protest. Some black leaders and other citizens vehemently disagreed with this philosophy. But King continued to remind his followers that their fight would be victorious if they did not resort to bloodshed. During the tumultuous years of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King was jailed many times. From a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, he wrote the famous words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
One of the key events of the Civil Rights Movement was the March on Washington on August 23, 1963. A crowd of more than 250,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C. and, led by Dr. King they marched to the Capitol Building to support the passing of laws that guaranteed equal civil rights to every American citizen. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day, Dr. King delivered one of his most powerful and eloquent speeches, entitled “I Have a Dream.” The March on Washington was one of the largest gatherings of people that the nation’s capital had ever seen…and no violence occurred. The following year, in 1964, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for leading nonviolent demonstrations.
That same year the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, calling for equal opportunity in employment and education. Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of others now knew that they had not struggled in vain. Yet there was still much work ahead to ensure that new laws were enforced, and other inequities abolished.
In the years that followed, Dr. King helped champion many legislative reforms, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed black citizens the right to safely register and vote. That year a record number of black voters went to the polls.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while supporting a workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee. He was just 39 years old. All people who had worked so hard for peace and civil rights were shocked and angry. The world grieved the loss of this great man of peace. Martin Luther King’s death did not slow the Civil Rights Movement. In 1969 Coretta Scott King founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. She passed away in January of 2006, after working throughout her life to keep her husband’s dream alive. Today people continue to work for social justice.