Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Learn About the Civil Rights Leader's Journey and the History of His Holiday
Today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—who was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia—is revered as one of the most transformative orators, ministers, and civil rights leaders the world has ever known; we honor his legacy on his eponymous holiday, which is observed on the third Monday of January each year. The history behind and the true meaning of this yearly homage, however, is best discovered within the context of his life, which was dedicated to dismantling discriminatory laws used against Black Americans. Ahead, Dr. Shayla C. Nunnally, PhD, a historian, author, and political science professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, speaks on the state of the country during this time period, and Dr. King's daughter, Dr. Bernice A. King, an attorney, orator, global thought leader, and the CEO of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, recounts Dr. King's life's work before and during the Civil Rights Movement—and explains how Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a nationally-recognized tribute.
A Calling to the Church
In the "Sweet Auburn" neighborhood of Atlanta, Dr. King grew up as the middle child to Martin Luther King Sr., a pastor, and Alberta Williams King, a teacher, and spent much of his early life in the church. As an adult, however, he didn't immediately feel the pull of the ministry. "He struggled with what he felt was 'a call.' Because everything he had experienced growing up in the Black tradition of the church seemed to veer more on the side of being emotional, he didn't see room for intellectual discussion of the scriptures," says Dr. Bernice King, noting that he often considered pursuing law or medicine. Though his future career path wasn't yet clear, Dr. King, as a Black man in America, acutely understood that equality was not "part of the group experience for Black Americans," says Dr. Nunnally, and that being "treated as an individual fairly outside of one's race" was not afforded to people of color. Growing up in the segregated South, Dr. King "learned that message at a young age," she continues. The future activist was forced to abide by Jim Crow Laws and follow what Dr. Nunnally calls racial etiquette—or "how Black people were supposed to interact properly with Southern whites or whites period within the context of the South," she explains.
His calling—to become both a minister and change-maker—came into sharper focus as he took theology classes at Morehouse College—he later entered Pennsylvania's Crozer Theological Seminary before attending Boston University to home in on philosophy. These experiences shifted his perspective on the church, while learnings from the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau later informed his views on nonviolent social resistance, explains Dr. Bernice King. "It led to an opening for him. He looked for ways in which he could make a contribution to society, to change the conditions that he had lived with," shares Dr. Bernice King. In turn, he shaped "change not just for himself, but for the whole nation."
An Early Leader of the Civil Rights Movement
Dr. King's work as a minister and leader within the Civil Rights Movement began in the mid-1950s, in Montgomery, Alabama. A year into his tenure, the young pastor grappled with the brutal murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, Illinois, who was visiting family in Mississippi; after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman, he was beaten, lynched, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River in August 1955. Dr. King noted his death as one of the most ruthless and inhumane murders of the 20th century. The cruel killing became a catalyst for the developing Civil Rights Movement—and mere months later, Dr. King spearheaded the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December 1955 after Rosa Parks, a seamstress and the secretary of the local NAACP chapter, refused to give up her seat to a white man. This work, and his community's determination to protest—and actively resist ongoing structures of inequality enacted during slavery, notes Dr. Nunnally—inspired and "refreshed" him, says Dr. Bernice King. She recalls a story her father once heard: A white bus driver tried to pick up an elderly Black woman. When the driver asked her if she was weary or in need of a ride, she replied simply. Her feet were tired—but her soul was rested.
Despite immense violence, jail time, and death threats, Dr. King and fellow activists organized nonviolent sit-ins and marches throughout the 1960s to dismantle all segregation laws, receive voting rights, and fight for equitable hiring. Nearly 300,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington, protesting for jobs and freedom, on August 28, 1963. Dr. King spoke of the dream he envisioned for future generations, when those of different races could coexist without judgement by the color of their skin, but instead, by the content of their characters; it earned him the Nobel Peace Prize (he was the youngest awardee at the time). His unrelenting efforts, which built upon the work of leaders within and before his generation, contributed to the passage of both the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Dr. King's mission was far from over. In the years that followed, he countered poverty and housing discrimination, voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War, and advanced equality. His life, however, was tragically cut short: He was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, while in town for a sanitation workers' strike. Efforts to create a holiday in his honor immediately followed. Just a few days after his murder, says Dr. Bernice King, Congressman John Conyers from Detroit, Michigan, put forth a bill for a King Holiday and persisted almost every year until it passed under someone else's authorship 15 years later. His wife, Coretta Scott King—a peace advocate, civil rights leader and, as Dr. Bernice King describes, the architect of the King legacy—was, however, his biggest advocate; she worked tirelessly to honor his life. After breaking ground on the King Center, which serves as a living memorial for Dr. King's life, work, and legacy, and preserving his childhood home as a historic landmark, she called on organizations around the country to construct the holiday.
"She started writing letters to governors, state legislators, and city officials to recognize his birthday as a holiday. We, in Atlanta, started doing the same thing, pushing against the resistance. From 1969 to now, we have been commemorating the holiday and encouraging others," says Dr. Bernice King. Atlanta became the "epicenter" and led to a chain reaction: Those who traveled to Georgia's state capital to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day went back into their own communities and did the same—and demanded recognition from their legislators. American singer Stevie Wonder wrote "Happy Birthday," released in 1981, to honor the activist and demand that time be "set aside for his recognition." Coretta Scott King lobbied, gathered signatures, testified numerous times to Congress, and worked with about 750 organizations in honor of the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington until legislation for the holiday finally passed in 1983. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was observed for the first time in 1986; all 50 states have commemorated Dr. King's holiday since 2000.
Honoring Dr. King's Legacy
The holiday's creation brought joy to her mother, the entire King family, and those who worked on the movement, says Dr. Bernice King, as it institutionalized and nationalized her father's legacy. Recognizing Dr. King and practicing his principles, however, extends beyond the third Monday in January—and the fight for equality is not over. "We have to move beyond using his words as props, as sounds bites. We need to look at them as a prescription to address our societal evils," Dr. Bernice King says, noting that it is imperative to educate others on, advocate for, and activate his principles to create social change. "His book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? ($9.99, amazon.com), really is a blueprint. It weaves together everything that was done up until 1967 and everything that we needed to do as a nation to create a just, humane, equitable, peaceful world."
When reflecting on her father, Dr. Bernice King wants people—especially young people—to know that he consistently challenged himself to grow into the man he became. Throughout college, his professors, she notes, gave him C-level grades in classes ranging from public speaking to philosophy—and yet, he shifted a nation and transformed culture through his speeches and methodology on nonviolence. "Sometimes, when external society gives you a certain grade or judges you a certain way, you may conclude that they are right and you might stop your pursuit or your passion," the global thought leader says. "If it's in you, if you feel driven by it, if you know this is something you are called to do, and it's part of your purpose, you just have to keep pushing and keep trying."