By: Tracey Starck
Today we celebrate Martin Luther King Day in honor of the life and legacy of American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. The holiday is observed on the third Monday of January, a day near his January 15th birthday, and is the only federal holiday that honors a private American citizen who is not a president. On this day, Americans pay tribute to King’s dream of equality and unconditional love by performing community service to help build a better, more united world.
The Man Behind the Dream
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929 as Michael but later changed his name to Martin. He graduated from segregated public schools and went on to study medicine and law at Morehouse College. After graduating from Morehouse, King furthered his studies by attending Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and soon followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father by becoming a Baptist pastor in Montgomery, Alabama.
Living in the highly-segregated Montgomery, Alabama led King towards the path of fighting for civil rights. He was chosen to lead the protest in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott sparked by segregation-defying action of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat.
In 1957 he helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group whose goal was to use nonviolent protest to gain full equality for African-Americans.
King’s involvement with the March on Washington in 1963 helped usher in a turning point in the struggle for equality. This is the moment where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, expressing a vision of peace and equality from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Over 200,000 demonstrators attended the rally which pressured political leaders to act and soon led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
At age thirty-five, King became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his efforts to achieve racial equality through non-violent means and his strong leadership of the Civil Rights movement. On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by a sniper while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee. While that day might have ended King’s life, it only made his legacy shine brighter.
A Legacy Lives On
Shortly after his assassination, Michigan Congressman John Conyers proposed the idea of making King’s birthday a federal holiday but making it a reality was not an easy accomplishment. The bill faced opposition for many years despite several attempts to push the bill forward. Musician Stevie Wonder even released a song titled “Happy Birthday” to help rally public support for the creation of the holiday. In 1983 —fifteen years after King’s death—President Reagan signed a bill making it an official national holiday beginning in January of 1986.
It was a long road from Martin Luther King, Jr’s humble beginnings to the impact he had on U.S. history and the lives of Americans today. On this Martin Luther King Day, take a moment to honor his memory and his vision by lifting up your community through volunteering or just helping someone in need. King’s dream for a world of peace comes alive with every act of kindness and unity. This isn’t just a holiday for African-Americans or even Americans as a whole; it’s a holiday for humanity and the heart with the human spirit.