Every year we honor we honor the late Martin Luther King Jr on the third Monday in January. It is also referred to as Civil Rights Day or MLK Day. MLK Day became an official Federal holiday in all 50 states in 2000. However, the campaign for a holiday in King’s honor began soon after his assassination in 1968. President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, and it was first observed three years later.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr., born Michael King Jr on January 15, 1929, was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968. King is best known for advancing civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience, inspired by his Christian beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi. He was the son of early civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Sr..
King participated in and led marches for blacks’ right to vote, desegregation, labor rights, and other basic civil rights. King led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and later became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). As president of the SCLC, he led the unsuccessful Albany Movement in Albany, Georgia, and helped organize some of the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. King helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The SCLC put into practice the tactics of nonviolent protest with some success by strategically choosing the methods and places in which protests were carried out. There were several dramatic stand-offs with segregationist authorities, who sometimes turned violent. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover considered King a radical and made him an object of the FBI’s COINTELPRO from 1963, forward. FBI agents investigated him for possible communist ties, recorded his extramarital liaisons and reported on them to government officials, and, in 1964, mailed King a threatening anonymous letter, which he interpreted as an attempt to make him commit suicide.
On October 14, 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. In 1965, he helped organize two of the three Selma to Montgomery marches. In his final years, he expanded his focus to include opposition towards poverty, capitalism, and the Vietnam War.
In 1968, King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. His death was followed by riots in many U.S. cities. Allegations that James Earl Ray, the man convicted of killing King, had been framed or acted in concert with government agents persisted for decades after the shooting. King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in cities and states throughout the United States beginning in 1971; the holiday was enacted at the federal level by legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor, and the most populous county in Washington State was rededicated for him. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 2011.
The Civil Rights Movement in the United States was a decades-long struggle by African Americans and their like-minded allies to end institutionalized racial discrimination, disenfranchisement and racial segregation in the United States. The movement has its origins in the Reconstruction era during the late 19th century, although the movement achieved its largest legislative gains in the mid-1960s after years of direct actions and grassroots protests. The social movement’s major nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience campaigns eventually secured new protections in federal law for the human rights of all Americans.
After the American Civil War and the subsequent abolition of slavery in the 1860s, the Reconstruction Amendments to the United States Constitution granted emancipation and constitutional rights of citizenship to all African Americans, most of whom had recently been enslaved. For a short period of time, African American men voted and held political office, but they were increasingly deprived of civil rights, often under the so-called Jim Crow laws, and African Americans were subjected to discrimination and sustained violence by white supremacists in the South. Over the following century, various efforts were made by African Americans to secure their legal and civil rights. In 1954, the separate but equal policy, which aided the enforcement of Jim Crow laws, was substantially weakened and eventually dismantled with the United States Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling and other subsequent rulings which followed. Between 1955 and 1968, nonviolent mass protests and civil disobedience produced crisis situations and productive dialogues between activists and government authorities. Federal, state, and local governments, businesses, and communities often had to immediately respond to these situations, which highlighted the inequities faced by African Americans across the country. The lynching of Chicago teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi, and the outrage generated by seeing how he had been abused when his mother decided to have an open-casket funeral, galvanized the African-American community nationwide. Forms of protest and/or civil disobedience included boycotts, such as the successful Montgomery bus boycott (1955–56) in Alabama, “sit-ins” such as the Greensboro sit-ins (1960) in North Carolina and successful Nashville sit-ins in Tennessee, mass marches, such as the 1963 Children’s Crusade in Birmingham and 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches (1965) in Alabama, and a wide range of other nonviolent activities and resistance.
At the culmination of a legal strategy pursued by African Americans, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 under the leadership of Earl Warren struck down many of the laws that had allowed racial segregation and discrimination to be legal in the United States as unconstitutional. The Warren Court made a series of landmark rulings against racist discrimination, such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964), and Loving v. Virginia (1967) which banned segregation in public schools and public accommodations, and struck down all state laws banning interracial marriage.The rulings also played a crucial role in bringing an end to the segregationist Jim Crow laws prevalent in the Southern states. In the 1960s, moderates in the movement worked with the United States Congress to achieve the passage of several significant pieces of federal legislation that overturned discriminatory laws and practices and authorized oversight and enforcement by the federal government. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964), explicitly banned all discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in employment practices, ended unequal application of voter registration requirements, and prohibited racial segregation in schools, at the workplace, and in public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 restored and protected voting rights for minorities by authorizing federal oversight of registration and elections in areas with historic under-representation of minorities as voters. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 banned discrimination in the sale or rental of housing.
African Americans re-entered politics in the South, and young people across the country were inspired to take action. From 1964 through 1970, a wave of inner-city riots and protests in black communities dampened support from the white middle class, but increased support from private foundations. The emergence of the Black Power movement, which lasted from 1965 to 1975, challenged the established black leadership for its cooperative attitude and its constant practice of legalism and non-violence. Instead, its leaders demanded that, in addition to the new laws gained through the nonviolent movement, political and economic self-sufficiency had to be developed in the black community. Ultimately, the emergence of the Black power movement came from an increasingly disillusioned African American proletariat. Many African Americans had seen little material improvement on the opportunities afforded them since the Civil Rights Movement’s peak in the mid 1960’s. The reality for African Americans remained the same: they still faced mass discrimination in jobs, housing, education and politics. Even if it was not overtly written into law anymore, African Americans still faced the reality of mass discrimination. Many popular representations of the Civil Rights movement are centered on the charismatic leadership and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr., who won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. However, some scholars note that the movement was too diverse to be credited to any particular person, organization, or strategy.
How to Celebrate or Honor MLK Jr.
- Learn about MLK
- Listen to “I Have a Dream”
- Learn about the Civil Rights Movement