Martin Luther King Jr. Day (also known as MLK Day) is a federal holiday marking the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Consistent with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, MLK Day is celebrated annually on the third Monday of January. MLK Day 2022 is being honored this year on January 17, 2022 and serves as the 36th anniversary of the federal day of service and celebration of the legacy of the great civil rights leader.
Who was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?
Dr. King was an American Baptist minister and a prominent spokesperson for nonviolent activism in the Civil Rights Movement, which protested racial discrimination in federal and state law. Born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929 as Michael King Jr, Dr. King underwent a name change after his father, Michael King Sr., a Baptist pastor, changed his name in honor of the German Protestant religious leader, Martin Luther, following a multinational trip in 1934. Mr. King Sr. believed racism and segregation to be an insult to God’s will, actively fought against racial prejudice, and strongly discouraged any sense of class superiority in his children, which left a lasting impression on his son.
Dr. King was a precocious student and entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at age 15 in 1944, after skipping both the 9th and 11th grades. Despite his family’s deep involvement in the church, Dr. King questioned religion in general, which led to him initially deciding against following his father’s footsteps of entering the ministry. This all changed when he took a Bible class during his junior year, which renewed his faith.
He graduated in 1948 from Morehouse College with a sociology degree and attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania from which he graduated in 1951 as valedictorian and student body president. Dr. King went on to earn a fellowship for graduate study and graduated from Boston College in 1955, at the age of 25, with his doctorate in systematic theology.
While working on his doctorate, Dr. King met Coretta Scott, an aspiring singer and musician. They were married on June 18, 1953 and had four children together – Yolanda King (November 17, 1955 – May 15, 2007), Martin Luther King III (born October 23, 1957), Dexter Scott King (born January 30, 1961), and Bernice King (born March 28, 1963). In December 1959, after being based in Montgomery, Alabama for five years, Dr. King announced his return to Atlanta where he served until his death as co-pastor with his father at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. During his tenure there, he also helped expand the Civil Rights Movement across the South.
Dr. King found in Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent approach to reform a "moral and practical way to struggle against social injustice" (Moore, 2003). His transformation to a national figure of nonviolent advocacy occurred in 1955 following the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott lasted 385 days, during which time Dr. King was arrested and jailed and his house was bombed. The controversy ended when the United States District Court issued a ruling in Browder v. Gayle that prohibited racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses, thanks largely to the advocacy of Dr. King.
While Dr. King went on to advocate for Civil Rights in many well-known events (e.g., Albany Movement, Birmingham Campaign, March on Washington), his 17-minute speech during the March on Washington is one that he is most renown for and has been regarded by many as “one of the finest speeches in the history of American oratory” (Moore, 2003):
“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.” – Dr. King
The March, and especially Dr. King's speech, helped facilitate passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The full speech can be accessed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yOBncaiito/.
Dr. King’s Death and Continued Influence and Impact on Society
Dr. King was fatally shot on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. The assassination led to a nationwide wave of race riots; and, just days after his assassination, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Beginning in 1971, cities and states established annual holidays to honor Dr. King; and on November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor Dr. King. Observed for the first time on January 20, 1986, it was not until January 17, 2000 that all fifty states observed Martin Luther King Jr Day. MLK Day is one of only two national days of service, as designated by the government.
This MLK Day we challenge you to promote Dr. King’s dream in the work that you do, not only on MLK Day, but throughout the year. Allow MLK Day to serve as a hallmark that inspires you to be of service to your friends, family, peers, patients, and community for the rest of the year. No act of service is too small as in the words of the late Dr. King, “everybody can be great.”
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