Sometimes referred to as MLK Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a federal holiday in the United States marking the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. It is a day that is often celebrated worldwide, on the third Monday of January every year. Born in 1929, King's actual birthday is January 15th. Martin Luther King Jr. was the main spokesperson for non-violent activism during the Civil Rights Movement, which protested racial discrimination in US law, and more widely in societal beliefs. The campaign for a holiday in King's honour began soon after his assassination in 1968, but the holiday didn't get signed into law until 1983 by President Ronald Regan. Some states refused to acknowledge the holiday, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day wasn't celebrated in all 50 states until the year 2000.
Inspired by the non-violent activism of Mahatma Gandhi and his own Christian beliefs, Martin Luther King Jr. organised non-violent forms of protest including marches, boycotts, civil disobedience and speeches. During King's childhood, the Southern United States operated under the ‘Jim Crow laws’ that kept black and white people segregated. Segregation denied black people basic human rights, including the right to vote. King's first major role in the Civil Rights Movement came in 1955, after a black woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus. This sparked outrage in the black community, leading King to help to organise a boycott of the city’s buses. After 381 long days of protest, a court finally ruled that such segregation laws should no longer be recognised. But the fight was long from over.
In 1963, King gave his infamous 'I Have a Dream' speech at the rally named ‘March on Washington.’ Over 250,000 people gathered in the country’s capital to hear King and other activists speak about the importance of civil rights. It has become one of the most famous speeches in history and focuses on King's dream of a society where black people and white people live in a fair and equal society, without discrimination. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed - 99 years after the abolition of slavery. This Act outlawed racial discrimination and segregation in the US. In October of the same year, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through non-violent resistance. In his final years, King broadened his scope to fight against poverty, capitalism and the Vietnam War.
In 1968, King was tragically assassinated whilst planning a national occupation of Washington D.C., which was going to be called the Poor People's Campaign. His death was followed by numerous riots, with many of his supporters and members of the public believing that his killer had been hired or coerced by government officials, a belief that many still hold to this day. James Earl Ray was convicted for King's murder, and died in incarceration. King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2003. King has inspired hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, and showed what people are capable of when they act together. King's legacy includes influences on the Black Consciousness Movement and civil rights movement in South Africa. His work was cited as an inspiration by South African leader Albert Lutuli who fought for racial justice in his country during apartheid and was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his own eulogy in 1968, and we'd like to leave you with his own words as we pay our respects and celebrate an incredible life that was cut far too short...
"I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind"