Today we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader who inspired a generation to fight for equality in the 1950s and 60s. Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been celebrated as a national holiday in his honor since 1986.
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) was a Baptist minister who helped lead the American civil rights movement up until his assassination in 1968. The man who spoke of peace, who “had a dream,” was viciously murdered while trying to make the United States a better place for all citizens, no matter their race. His incredible work and legacy will always be remembered on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Martin was a young, influential reverend who had just moved to Montgomery, AL with his family when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to move to the back of the bus. The city was already the volatile epicenter of the Civil Rights movement, the segregation landmark case Brown v. Board of Education having hit in 1954 — one year prior. Martin was asked by activists after the Rosa Parks arrest to help lead a boycott of the public transportation, which continued for 381 days.
Martin was thrust into the national spotlight, and he caught the attention of white supremacists quickly, who firebombed his home and made damning threats. But he wasn’t deterred. He urged for organized, nonviolent resistance; when he helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, their motto was “not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed.”
He was at the forefront of the protests in Birmingham, AL, where he and his family had moved. He and his fellow activists held sit-ins and banded together for marches in the face of true cruelty from white proponents of segregation. In 1963, Martin was arrested, and wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a treatise on the state of segregation in the United States.
Later that year, he and other activists worked to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Attended by about 300,000 peaceful protestors, it’s considered one of the most pivotal moments in the Civil Rights movement. The march ended with his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.
His civil work changed the United States. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed; he became TIME’s Man of the Year 1964 and the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. The 50th anniversary of the Selma March to Montgomery happened in 2015; it was an event in which Martin, with the support of President Johnson, led protestors on a march away from battle-torn Selma, AL, across the bridge to Selma.
The impact Martin had on the world is irrefutable, and it could only have grown had he not met his tragic end in 1968. On the night of April 4, Martin was shot and killed by James Earl Ray while standing on his hotel balcony in Memphis, TN. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed as a federal holiday in 1983 by President Reagan, and has been celebrated the third Monday of January ever since.
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