MLK Day: celebrating societal equality

For the last 29 years, the United States has observed a federal holiday in honor of the minister each year on the third Monday in January.

On Aug. 28, 1963 at 3:00 p.m. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered an impromptu, 16 minute-long speech in front of more than 200,000 demonstrators.

“I have a dream that my four little 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.”

Well known for his social activism, King played an important role in achieving landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In addition to his famous speech at the March on Washington, King also took part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and actively sought equal rights for Americans of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds through peaceful protests until his assassination in 1968.

However, aside from the accolades and quotable tidbits of King’s memorable speech, how many observers of this annual holiday actually know how the day many view as just another day off of work and/or school, actually came to be? 

Four days after King’s assassination, Congressman John Conyers, a democrat from Michigan was the first to introduce legislation recommending a federal holiday in honor of the Baptist minister.

When the bill was stalled, a petition endorsing the holiday containing six million signatures was submitted to Congress hoping to propel the legislation forward. Spearheaded by Conyers and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, a democrat from New York, the two representatives resubmitted the legislation each subsequent legislative session hoping to eventually establish a day of commemoration.

In addition to the petition, musician Stevie Wonder added his support of the holiday with the release of his single “Happy Birthday” in 1980.

“I just never understood how a man who died for good could not have a day that would be set aside for his recognition. Because it should never be just because some cannot see the dream as clear as he that they should make it become an illusion. And we all know everything that he stood for time will bring for in peace our hearts will sing thanks to Martin Luther King.”

The bill was finally endorsed in 1976 and became a law in 1983. The federal holiday was first observed in 1986 however it was not celebrated by all 50 states until the year 2000.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born to pastor Martin Luther King, Sr. and school teacher Alberta Williams King on Jan. 15, 1929 in Atlanta Georgia. The second of three children, King attended public schools in the peak of segregation until the age of 15 when he began studying medicine and law at Morehouse College from which he graduated in 1948.

Immediately following his graduation, King entered Crozer Theological Seminary where he earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree and later attended Boston University where he earned his doctorate in systematic theology in 1953.

During his time at Boston University, King met Coretta Scott, a student at the New England Conservatory of Music from Alabama, who he married in 1953. The couple settled in Montgomery, Alabama where he served as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and raised four children together.

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