Information PleaseÂ® Database, Â© 2006 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.
Martin Luther King Day is a federal holiday observed on the third Monday in January.
It took 15 years to create the federal Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday. Congressman John Conyers, Democrat from Michigan, first introduced legislation for a commemorative holiday four days after King was assassinated in 1968. After the bill became stalled, petitions endorsing the holiday containing six million names were submitted to Congress.
Conyers and Rep. Shirley Chisholm, Democrat of New York, resubmitted King holiday legislation each subsequent legislative session. Public pressure for the holiday mounted during the 1982 and 1983 civil rights marches in Washington.
Congress passed the holiday legislation in 1983, which was then signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. A compromise moving the holiday from Jan. 15, King’s birthday, which was considered too close to Christmas and New Year’s, to the third Monday in January helped overcome opposition to the law.
A number of states resisted celebrating the holiday. Some opponents said King did not deserve his own holidayâ€”contending that the entire civil rights movement rather than one individual, however instrumental, should be honored. Several southern states include celebrations for various Confederate generals on that day. Arizona voters approved the holiday in 1992 after a tourist boycott. In 1999, New Hampshire changed the name of Civil Rights Day to Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.
The life of Martin Luther King Jr.
Any number of historic moments in the civil rights struggle have been used to identify Martin Luther King, Jr. â€” prime mover of the Montgomery bus boycott, keynote speaker at the March on Washington, youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate. But in retrospect, single events are less important than the fact that King, and his policy of nonviolent protest, was the dominant force in the civil rights movement during its decade of greatest achievement, from 1957 to 1968.
King was born Michael Luther King in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 1929 â€” one of the three children of Martin Luther King Sr., pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Alberta (Williams) King, a former schoolteacher. (He was renamed „Martin” when he was about 6 years old.)
After going to local grammar and high schools, King enrolled in Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1944. He wasn’t planning to enter the ministry, but then he met Dr. Benjamin Mays, a scholar whose manner and bearing convinced him that a religious career could be intellectually satisfying as well. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1948, King attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa., winning the Plafker Award as the outstanding student of the graduating class, and the J. Lewis Crozer Fellowship as well. King completed the coursework for his doctorate in 1953, and was granted the degree two years later upon completion of his dissertation.
Married by then, King returned South to become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. Here, he made his first mark on the civil-rights movement, by mobilizing the black community during a 382-day boycott of the city’s bus lines. King overcame arrest and other violent harassment, including the bombing of his home. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court declared bus segregation unconstitutional.
A national hero and a civil-rights figure of growing importance, King summoned together a number of black leaders in 1957 and laid the groundwork for the organization now known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King was elected its president, and he soon began helping other communities organize their own protests against discrimination.
After finishing his first book and making a trip to India, King returned to the United States in 1960 to become co-pastor, with his father, of Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Three years later, King’s nonviolent tactics were put to their most severe test in Birmingham, during a mass protest for fair hiring practices and the desegregation of department-store facilities. Police brutality used against the marchers dramatized the plight of blacks to the nation at large, with enormous impact. King was arrested, but his voice was not silenced: He wrote „Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to refute his critics.
Later that year King was a principal speaker at the historic March on Washington, where he delivered one of the most passionate addresses of his career. Time magazine designated him as its Person of the Year for 1963. A few months later he was named recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. When he returned from Norway, where he had gone to accept the award, King took on new challenges. In Selma, Ala., he led a voter-registration campaign that ended in the Selma-to-Montgomery Freedom March. King next brought his crusade to Chicago, where he launched programs to rehabilitate the slums and provide housing.
In the North, however, King soon discovered that young and angry blacks cared little for his preaching and even less for his pleas for peaceful protest. Their disenchantment was one of the reasons he rallied behind a new cause: the war in Vietnam.
Although he was trying to create a new coalition based on equal support for peace and civil rights, it caused an immediate rift. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) saw King’s shift of emphasis as „a serious tactical mistake” the Urban League warned that the „limited resources” of the civil-rights movement would be spread too thin;
But from the vantage point of history, King’s timing was superb. Students, professors, intellectuals, clergymen and reformers rushed into the movement. Then, King turned his attention to the domestic issue that he felt was directly related to the Vietnam struggle: poverty. He called for a guaranteed family income, he threatened national boycotts, and he spoke of disrupting entire cities by nonviolent „camp-ins.” With this in mind, he began to plan a massive march of the poor on Washington, D.C., envisioning a demonstration of such intensity and size that Congress would have to recognize and deal with the huge number of desperate and downtrodden Americans.
King interrupted these plans to lend his support to the Memphis sanitation men’s strike. He wanted to discourage violence, and he wanted to focus national attention on the plight of the poor, unorganized workers of the city. The men were bargaining for basic union representation and long-overdue raises.
But he never got back to his poverty plans. Death came for King on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the black-owned Lorraine Hotel just off Beale Street. While standing outside with Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy, King was shot in the neck by a rifle bullet. His death caused a wave of violence in major cities across the country.
However, King’s legacy has lived on. In 1969, his widow, Coretta Scott King, organized the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change. Today it stands next to his beloved Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. His birthday, Jan. 15, is a national holiday, celebrated each year with educational programs, artistic displays, and concerts throughout the United States. The Lorraine Hotel where he was shot is now the National Civil Rights Museum.
â€” Based on The African American Almanac, 7th ed., Gale, 1997.
Martin Luther King’s Dream of Racial Equality
A dream fulfilled?
By David Pitts
Washington File Special Correspondent
It was a march and a speech that the world cannot forget. August 28, 1963 an estimated 250,000 people marched to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington where they heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. give a speech of unsurpassable eloquence. Known ever since from its „I Have a Dream” passages, the speech gave impassioned voice to the demands of the U.S. civil rights movement — equal rights for all citizens, including those who were born black and brown.
The speech particularly, coming near the close of the then largest demonstration in U.S. history, created a new spirit of hope across the land. It was one of those rare moments in history that changed a nation — paving the way for a transformation of American law and life.
„It was a very peaceful day. A sea of white as well as black faces enveloped the Mall,” recalls Dorothy Height, president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). She was one of the march organizers and sat behind Dr. King on the platform. „I think it was a decisive moment not only in U.S. civil rights history, but also in American history. It resulted in a new determination to move toward equality, freedom and greater employment for people of color,” she adds.
Height, still an activist , and the author of a memoir, „Open Wide the Freedom Gates,” says „The real significance of the march, and the speech, was that it changed attitudes. Righteous indignation against racial discrimination became widespread after the march. It led to a time so full of promise and achievement. You could feel it.” Congressman John Lewis (Democrat-Georgia), the youngest speaker, at age 23 at the 1963 march, agrees. „Because of the march, because of the involvement of hundreds and thousands of ordinary citizens, we experienced what I like to call a nonviolent revolution under the rule of law — a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas.”
The tangible manifestation of the change that Height and Lewis describe was quick in coming. Less than a year after the march, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in public facilities, such as hotels and restaurants, and also prohibited employment discrimination. The following year, the Voting Rights Act was enacted to ensure that African Americans had the right to vote in reality as well as on paper. In 1968, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act to remove discrimination in buying and renting of housing. This landmark legislation was complemented by new policies, such as affirmative action, designed to counter the legacy of discrimination and to promote African American advancement.
The 1960s legislation is considered to be the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement. The Civil Rights Act swept away the more blatant forms of segregation and discrimination, banishing centuries-old indignities. The Voting Rights Act empowered millions of African Americans politically, leading to a surge in black officeholders.
The new laws took effect immediately. More evolutionary was a change in attitudes. In a 1963 Newsweek poll, 74 percent of whites said racial integration was „moving too fast,” a viewpoint that seems shocking today when attitudes are very different. In a 2000 New York Times poll, for example, 93 percent of whites said they would vote for a qualified black presidential candidate. More than 60 percent approved of interracial marriage. And 80 percent said they did not care whether their neighbors were white or black.
If Dr. King were alive today, he would likely applaud the achievement of most of the aims of the 1963 march, while stressing that his dream has still not been fully realized, particularly as relates to equality of economic opportunity. It is a view also stressed by civil rights leaders, such as Dorothy Height and John Lewis. „We have made much of Dr. King’s dream come true,” says Lewis. But, he adds, „we still have a distance to go.” Closing lingering economic and educational disparities among the races, however, is a much more complex task than ending legally sanctioned segregation and mandating voting rights.
As for Dr. King, his dream at the March on Washington is now part of the political mainstream, his birthday a national holiday during which Americans honor his ideas and his memory. Political leaders from both major parties supported a memorial to be built in his honor in the nation’s capital — alongside three giants of American history, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt. It is a measure perhaps of how much a nation can grow and change that King’s dream now is accepted as irrefutable truth by the overwhelming majority of Americans.
And not just Americans. Throughout his short life of just 39 years, King fought for racial justice everywhere, not just in the United States. To that end, he traveled the world proclaiming his vision of the „beloved community,” and defining racism as a worldwide evil. „Among the moral imperatives of our time, we are challenged to work all over the world with unshakable determination to wipe out the last vestiges of racism,” he remarked. „It is no mere American phenomenon. Its vicious grasp knows no national boundaries.”
Even on the day of his „I Have A Dream” speech, when he was talking to Americans in particular, King was conscious of the worldwide impact of the march and its message. „As television beamed the image of this extraordinary gathering across the borders and oceans,” he said, „everyone who believed in man’s capacity to better himself had a moment of inspiration and confidence in the future of the human race.”
The universal significance of the events of August 28, 1963, is underlined by Dorothy Height. „Wherever I have been in the world these last 40 years, it’s incredible to me how much people know about the civil rights movement and Dr. King — often in very specific detail. The world was watching us on that day,” she says. „The march touched the world as well as America.”
The Meaning of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday
By Coretta Scott King
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday celebrates the life and legacy of a man who brought hope and healing to America. We commemorate as well the timeless values he taught us through his example — the values of courage, truth, justice, compassion, dignity, humility and service that so radiantly defined Dr. Kingâ€™s character and empowered his leadership. On this holiday, we commemorate the universal, unconditional love, forgiveness and nonviolence that empowered his revolutionary spirit.
We commemorate Dr. Kingâ€™s inspiring words, because his voice and his vision filled a great void in our nation, and answered our collective longing to become a country that truly lived by its noblest principles. Yet, Dr. King knew that it wasnâ€™t enough just to talk the talk, that he had to walk the walk for his words to be credible. And so we commemorate on this holiday the man of action, who put his life on the line for freedom and justice every day, the man who braved threats and jail and beatings and who ultimately paid the highest price to make democracy a reality for all Americans.
The King Holiday honors the life and contributions of Americaâ€™s greatest champion of racial justice and equality, the leader who not only dreamed of a color-blind society, but who also lead a movement that achieved historic reforms to help make it a reality.
On this day we commemorate Dr. Kingâ€™s great dream of a vibrant, multiracial nation united in justice, peace and reconciliation; a nation that has a place at the table for children of every race and room at the inn for every needy child. We are called on this holiday, not merely to honor, but to celebrate the values of equality, tolerance and interracial sister and brotherhood he so compellingly expressed in his great dream for America.
It is a day of interracial and intercultural cooperation and sharing. No other day of the year brings so many peoples from different cultural backgrounds together in such a vibrant spirit of brother and sisterhood. Whether you are African-American, Hispanic or Native American, whether you are Caucasian or Asian-American, you are part of the great dream Martin Luther King, Jr. had for America. This is not a black holiday; it is a peoples’ holiday. And it is the young people of all races and religions who hold the keys to the fulfillment of his dream.
We commemorate on this holiday the ecumenical leader and visionary who embraced the unity of all faiths in love and truth. And though we take patriotic pride that Dr. King was an American, on this holiday we must also commemorate the global leader who inspired nonviolent liberation movements around the world. Indeed, on this day, programs commemorating my husbandâ€™s birthday are being observed in more than 100 nations.
The King Holiday celebrates Dr. Kingâ€™s global vision of the world house, a world whose people and nations had triumphed over poverty, racism, war and violence. The holiday celebrates his vision of ecumenical solidarity, his insistence that all faiths had something meaningful to contribute to building the beloved community.
The Holiday commemorates Americaâ€™s pre-eminent advocate of nonviolence — the man who taught by his example that nonviolent action is the most powerful, revolutionary force for social change available to oppressed people in their struggles for liberation.
This holiday honors the courage of a man who endured harassment, threats and beatings, and even bombings. We commemorate the man who went to jail 29 times to achieve freedom for others, and who knew he would pay the ultimate price for his leadership, but kept on marching and protesting and organizing anyway.
Every King holiday has been a national „teach-in” on the values of nonviolence, including unconditional love, tolerance, forgiveness and reconciliation, which are so desperately-needed to unify America. It is a day of intensive education and training in Martinâ€™s philosophy and methods of nonviolent social change and conflict-reconciliation. The Holiday provides a unique opportunity to teach young people to fight evil, not people, to get in the habit of asking themselves, „what is the most loving way I can resolve this conflict?”
On the King holiday, young people learn about the power of unconditional love even for one’s adversaries as a way to fight injustice and defuse violent disputes. It is a time to show them the power of forgiveness in the healing process at the interpersonal as well as international levels.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is not only for celebration and remembrance, education and tribute, but above all a day of service. All across America on the Holiday, his followers perform service in hospitals and shelters and prisons and wherever people need some help. It is a day of volunteering to feed the hungry, rehabilitate housing, tutoring those who can’t read, mentoring at-risk youngsters, consoling the broken-hearted and a thousand other projects for building the beloved community of his dream.
Dr. King once said that we all have to decide whether we „will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. Life’s most persistent and nagging question, he said, is `what are you doing for others?'” he would quote Mark 9:35, the scripture in which Jesus of Nazareth tells James and John „…whosoever will be great among you shall be your servant; and whosoever among you will be the first shall be the servant of all.” And when Martin talked about the end of his mortal life in one of his last sermons, on February 4, 1968 in the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church, even then he lifted up the value of service as the hallmark of a full life. „I’d like somebody to mention on that day Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others,” he said. „I want you to say on that day, that I did try in my life…to love and serve humanity.
We call you to commemorate this Holiday by making your personal commitment to serve humanity with the vibrant spirit of unconditional love that was his greatest strength, and which empowered all of the great victories of his leadership. And with our hearts open to this spirit of unconditional love, we can indeed achieve the Beloved Community of Martin Luther King, Jr.â€™s dream.
May we who follow Martin now pledge to serve humanity, promote his teachings and carry forward his legacy into the 21st Century.
The King Center – Atlanta, GA
Martin Luther King Speeches
Excerpts from King’s most famous addresses
The success of Martin Luther King’s non-violent movement against segregation and injustice in the American south owes much to his visionary and inspirational eloquence. The following are excerpts from King’s most popular speeches, according to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Paper Project at Stanford University.
Letter from Birmingham Jail â€” April 16, 1963
While jailed for leading anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, King wrote this letter arguing that individuals have the moral duty to disobey unjust laws.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was „well timed,” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word „Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This „wait” has almost always meant „never.” We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that „justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Full text: Â http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_letter_from_birmingham_jail_1963/
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom â€” August 28, 1963
The March on Washington took place in Washington, D.C., and was attended by 250,000 people. King’s speech at the March remains one of the most famous speeches in American history. King started with prepared remarks but then departed from his script, shifting into the „I have a dream” theme he’d used on prior occasions, speaking of an America where his children „will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He followed this with an exhortation to „let freedom ring” across the nation, and concluded with:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: â€śWe hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.â€ť I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four 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.
Full text: Â http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_march_on_washington_for_jobs_and_freedom/
Acceptance Speech at Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony â€” December 10, 1964
At age 35, King became the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. When he learned of the honor, he announced that he would donate all of the prize money ($54,123) to the civil rights movement.
Therefore, I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle, and to a movement which has not yet won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize. After contemplation, I conclude that this award, which I receive on behalf of that movement, is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.
Beyond Vietnam â€” April 4, 1967
By 1967, King had become a passionate opponent of the Vietnam War. In this speech delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City, King referred tp the United States „the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
Full text: Â http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_beyond_vietnam/
I’ve Been To The Mountaintop â€” April 3, 1968
On the eve of a protest march for striking garbage workers in Memphis, Tenn., King gave this darkly prescient speech. The next day he was assassinated.
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Full text: Â http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/ive_been_to_the_mountaintop/
Free At Last
This book recounts how African-American slaves and their descendants struggled to win â€” both in law and in practice â€” the civil rights enjoyed by other Americans. It is a story of dignified persistence and struggle, a story that produced great heroes and heroines, and one that ultimately succeeded by forcing Americans to confront squarely the shameful gap between their universal principles of equality and justice and the inequality, injustice, and oppression faced by millions of their fellow citizens
Martin Luther King „I have a dream” â€“ 1:32 mins.
„We Shall Overcome” – Martin Luther King, Jr. â€“ 2:26 mins.
1968 – Martin Luther King’s Prophetic Last speech â€“ Remember â€“ 3:15 mins.