The Importance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Each Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, held on the third Monday of January in the United States, cities host parades, department stores hold major sales, and American schools close for the day.

While many might just consider MLK Jr. Day just another holiday to relax and enjoy the day off of school, it represents much more than just a federal holiday—MLK Jr. Day celebrates the triumph of nonviolent civil disobedience over racial segregation. Here is a primer on how the holiday began and what it means:

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Who was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a civil rights leader who is recognized as one of “the greatest nonviolent leaders in world history.” He organized and led many prominent anti-segregation protest movements and demonstrations in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Dr. King orchestrated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Birmingham anti-segregation protests, and the March on Washington where he delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.”

Within the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King became the chief spokesperson for non-violent civil disobedience, which is the practice of refusing to obey oppressive laws of the government. While Dr. King and other civil rights activists practiced non-violence in their demonstrations, they faced violent attacks from racist individuals as well as racist state and local governments. Dr. King was assassinated by a racist individual in 1968.

While Dr. King is celebrated today, during his lifetime he faced strong criticism from some within the general public, and even in the federal government, for disrupting the rigid institutionalized system of white racism in the United States. Indeed, he was a radical figure in his time who faced great obstacles such as physical harassment, death threats, and imprisonment as he worked towards his goal of racial equality in the United States.

When did Martin Luther King, Jr. Day first begin?

After Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968 labor unions in the United States began to campaign for a federal holiday to celebrate the life and work of Dr. King. Shortly after his death  Democratic U.S Representative John Conyers and Republican U.S Senator Edward Brooke introduced a bill to Congress to make Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday. For many years U.S Congress failed to pass this bill, as opponents argued that the federal government shouldn’t celebrate a private citizen who never held public office.

When did Martin Luther King, Jr. Day become a federal holiday?

In 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed a bill calling for a federal holiday to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. Although Reagan had originally opposed the bill—as Reagan disapproved of Dr. King’s campaign against the Vietnam War and support of Marxist critiques of capitalism—he eventually signed it after the King Center led a successful petition campaign.

How do people celebrate the holiday?

Across the United States individuals and groups celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a day of community service and volunteering. Cities such as Atlanta and Philadelphia host large service-based events on MLK Jr. Day.  Previous United States Presidents such as Barack Obama and George W. Bush have also volunteered on MLK Jr. Day.

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