Behind a day of remembrance: Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Gretchen Allen, Staff Writer


Born in 1929 in Atlanta, Ga., Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in a segregated public school and thrived in his academic work all throughout his years of education. Then he met Dr. Benjamin Mayes who sparked his interest in racial equality. King became a civil rights activist fighting for equality for all and strongly believed that every man is created equal. His speeches, marches, peaceful protests, and nonviolent resistance to segregation laws made him stand out from his predecessors.  

His famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 bursts with hope and faith in a nation that treats each man and woman as equal, no matter the color of their skin. He yearned for our nation to be the first nonviolent democratic nation to treat each citizen with dignity and be judged on their character rather than their appearance. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 a year after his speech, the youngest person to ever receive this honor. Determined to make a difference, King continued to lead marches for voting rights, against fear, in support of workers in Memphis. He gave many more speeches until his final speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” on April 3, 1968, where he ended his speech telling the crowds that he was not afraid to die because he had seen the Promised Land and was only here to do God’s will. The next day King was shot and killed by James Earl Ray.  

A Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday was introduced a mere four days after King’s assassination. On Jan. 15, 1969, the King Center observed their first commemoration of his birthday. Two years later, a petition with three million signatures, did not pass in congress to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday. Many did not lose sight of their goal, especially his wife, Coretta Scott King, who appeared before Congress and the Senate Judiciary Committee multiple times. Five years went by before the first state, Illinois, passed the law for a state holiday celebrating King. By 1980, four states acknowledged King’s holiday statewide and a hit song “Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder urged citizens to celebrate the life of King. After years of fighting for remembrance, President Reagan signed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day into effect on the third Monday of January starting in 1986. Three years after, only 44 states celebrated this day, and many were still fighting for a paid day off work. In June of 1999, New Hampshire was the last state to sign the King holiday into effect.

Today, every state has two representatives who choose how the state will celebrate MLK Day. It is observed as a paid day off work as employees are encouraged to get involved with their community, take action for social needs, promote interracial cooperation, and social work in remembrance of King. More than 100 nations have established a holiday in support of King because of his work in civil rights and nonviolence.  Today, we will not forget to stand firm on the statement, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”


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