Martin Luther King Jr. Day occurs on the third Monday of January every year. This federal holiday honor’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy as a civil rights activist and spokesperson.
King was born on Jan.15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. He was named after his father, Michael King Sr, but both changed their names to “Martin” after the Protestant leader, Martin Luther. Along with being a Baptist minister, King Sr. was also a Civil Rights leader. In 1936, King Sr. led a march to the Atlanta City Hall to promote racial equality and protest voting rights discrimination.
King graduated high school at 15, skipping both the ninth and 11th grades. He then went on to Morehouse College in Atlanta.
In King’s Junior year, he took a Bible class that redirected both his studies and his faith. King graduated from Morehouse with a sociology degree and moved to Chester, Pennsylvania where he attended Crozer Theological Seminary.
After his time in Pennsylvania, King began looking into doctorate programs. After being accepted into many institutions, King began the doctoral process at Boston University. While in Boston, he met Coretta Scott, an aspiring musician. In 1953, the two married.
During King’s doctorate studies, he also became the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954. One year later, King completed his doctorate degree at 25 years old.
Six months after King received his doctorate, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. Parks’ refusal was the beginning of the Modern Civil Rights movement that King would play an integral role in.
The night of Parks’ arrest, NAACP chapter president E.D. Nixon met with King and other civil rights leaders to plan the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King was chosen to lead the event.
The African Americans involved in the boycott spent 382 days walking to work while being harassed and terrorized on the way there. King’s home was also attacked during this time.
These bus protests paid off. The boycott allowed peaceful protest which caused great financial loss to the city. Montgomery lifted the law mandating segregated public transport.
Under King’s leadership, the African American community in Alabama began marching the streets and hosting sit-ins to make their voices heard.
King organized a demonstration in downtown Birmingham, which eventually deteriorated into a frenzy. Local police officers turned dogs and fire hydrants on the protestors and arrested many of them, including King.
While in jail after the Birmingham protest, King composed his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” an open letter to King’s supporters about the moral responsibility to break unjust laws in civil disobedience. King also stressed non-violence, a tenet he valued throughout his entire life.
After King was released from the Birmingham jail, he continued to fight for racial equality. He began making plans for a national demonstration, one that would take place in Washington D.C. On Aug. 28, 1963, King and around 200,000 supporters gathered in the National Mall for the historic March on Washington. The protestors marched to the Lincoln Memorial where King gave his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream.”
This demonstration resulted in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a law outlawing racial discrimination in publicly owned facilities. The success of the bill also led King to receive a Nobel Peace Prize during the same year.
Throughout his life, King continued to organize civil rights protests and demonstrations.
On April 3, 1968, King gave what would be his final speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis. The speech was entitled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” and it would prove prophetic given the following day’s events.
The next day, King was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis when he was shot and killed. The assassin, James Earl Ray, was eventually arrested after a two-month manhunt.
The legacy King left behind is still celebrated, nearly 60 years later as the U.S. takes a day to honor his work and teaching.