Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday

Date Observed: Third Monday in January
Location: Communities nationwide

The third Monday in January is a federal holiday that commemorates Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and contributions to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The holiday, which is celebrated nationwide, falls on or near King's birthday on January 15.

Historical Background

Before Martin Luther King Jr. became involved with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans were struggling to overcome segregation and oppression in the United States. For example, an early civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), formed in 1909 and began crusades to pass anti-lynching laws and to overturn legal segregation.

One of the NAACP's important members and promoters was W. E. B. Du Bois (18681963), professor, scholar, author, and activist. In 1910, Du Bois became editor of the NAACP's monthly journal Crisis, which reached a large readership of African Americans and helped gain support for the organization's civil rights programs.

Another significant African American fighting for civil rights in the early decades of the 1900s was Asa Philip Randolph (1889-1979). He was a tireless activist for the rights of black workers and often risked his personal safety and life to obtain equal job opportunities for African Americans. He is best known for founding the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. By 1937, under Randolph's leadership, the union had won the right to negotiate with the Pullman Company, which made railroad cars and was the largest single employer of blacks in the United States. The corporation agreed to raise wages and reduce work hours for porters from 400 to 200 hours per month.

Randolph also led an effort in 1940 to try to convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt to integrate the armed forces and defense industries. When Roosevelt refused, Randolph announced that he would organize a protest march on Washington, D.C. That prompted Roosevelt to sign an executive order to prohibit discrimination in defense industries and established the Fair Employment Practices Committee. Randolph then called off the march, which some blacks denounced because they thought there should be a demonstration of black power. However, Randolph continued his fight for black civil rights over the years. He later helped organize the 1963 March on Washington that brought more than 200,000 people to Washington, D.C., where they listened to Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Martin Luther - A Preacher's


Born on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. was originally named Michael. His father later adopted the name Martin, and when Michael was about six years old, his name also was changed to Martin. His family included an older sister and younger brother.

King's maternal grandfather, Reverend Adam Williams, was pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and following Williams's death, King's father became pastor of the church. King, too, served the church as co-pastor with his father.

From his mother, Alberta Williams King, a former school teacher, King gained a love for books and was reading by the time he entered first grade. He was an excellent student and graduated from high school at the age of 15, passing an entrance examination to enroll in Morehouse College, a prominent African-American school. For a time he considered studying medicine or the law, but majored in sociology and decided to enter the ministry. After graduating from Morehouse in 1948, he attended Crozer Theological Seminary, where a lecture on the life of Mohandas Gandhi and his quest for ahimsa, or nonviolence, sparked King's interest and desire to learn more about the Indian leader.

King earned a bachelor of divinity degree in 1951 and began doctoral studies at Boston University. There he met Coretta Scott, whom he married in 1953. The couple eventually had four children, Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter, and Bernice. In 1954, King accepted the position of pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where he served until 1960. Those years were momentous times in the civil rights movement.

The Struggle for Civil Rights

From the mid-1950s through the 1960s, the struggle against racism and for the civil rights of people of color frequently meant putting one's life on the line. Some historians have called the civil rights movement a revolution in that activists set out to change a way of life, particularly in southern states where segregation laws established separate facilities, such as restrooms and water fountains for "white" and "colored." Apartments and hotels carried signs to indicate "white only" or "colored only." Restaurants, laundromats, and movie theaters owned or operated by whites refused to serve people of color.

Discrimination against people because of their skin color was not confined to the South, however. Across the nation African Americans were barred from certain jobs and professions, were not allowed to rent or buy homes in certain neighborhoods, and usually attended separate schools with far fewer resources than all-white schools.

One of the first major changes in federal laws that helped propel the civil rights movement was the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Oliver Brown, an African-American man in Topeka, Kansas, wanted his daughter Linda to attend an all-white school just a few blocks from where the family lived, but the school board refused to let Linda enroll. The state had set up segregated schools, which was allowed years earlier in a High Court ruling (Plessy v. Ferguson) that segregation was legal according to a federal law requiring "separate but equal" facilities.

The educational facilities for blacks and whites were not equal, however. Most black schools lacked basic materials such as books, desks, or even a safe, heated building for students. Whites on the other hand were able to attend schools that not only had sufficient supplies but also were conducive to learning.

With the help of the NAACP, Oliver Brown sued the Topeka school board and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1954 overturned the earlier federal "separate but equal" law and ordered that public schools be desegregated "with all deliberate speed."

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

A major civil rights effort to overturn laws that segregated public transportation in the South began in late 1955. African Americans were forced to ride in the back of public buses and had to stand even when there were empty seats. When Rosa Parks (19132005), a black woman who had been working all day, got on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and refused to move to the rear of the vehicle, she broke one of the state's segregation laws. She was arrested and jailed (see also Rosa Parks Day).

A trial for Parks, an NAACP official, was scheduled a few days after her arrest, and NAACP leaders quickly formed the Montgomery Improvement Association. They elected one of their members, Martin Luther King Jr., as president. King organized a boycott of the bus system, which lasted more than a year. The boycott financially hurt the bus company and businesses that catered to riders, who were primarily African Americans.

Following King's lead, blacks refused to ride the public buses, a major form of transportation, but instead created car pools, which police tried to break up. Drivers were sometimes arrested on fabricated charges. King himself was arrested and jailed for allegedly exceeding the speed limit. It was just one of many arrests and imprisonments that he endured in the years ahead.

On February 2, 1956, the NAACP filed a lawsuit in a U.S. district court charging that segregation in public transportation facilities was unconstitutional. Less than three weeks later, King and more than 100 other African Americans were indicted on charges of conspiring to prevent the bus company from doing business.

By June of 1956, the federal court ruled that segregation on city bus lines was unconstitutional, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that ruling in November. By December 21, 1956, the successful boycott was over.

A Force against Segregation

Beyond efforts to integrate public transportation systems, the civil rights movement became a driving force against segregation in all types of public facilities. Throughout the rest of the 1950s, African Americans made additional strides toward equality. The Voting Rights Act, the first civil rights act since the days of Reconstruction after the Civil War, passed in 1957, authorizing the U.S. Justice Department to file lawsuits on behalf of blacks who had been denied their right to vote. More public services, such as city swimming pools, were integrated.

Expanding the civil rights efforts in the South was one of King's priorities in 1957. He brought together African-American ministers who were committed to civil rights, and they formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Members elected King president of the SCLC, and he led a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., where he gave his first major speech that received national coverage. In 1960, King and his family moved to Atlanta, Georgia. He became co-pastor, with his father, of the Ebenezer Baptist Church; he also continued his involvement with the civil rights movement. By the early 1960s, the movement was making some gains. Nonviolent student sit-in protests brought nationwide media attention to segregated restaurants, theaters, hotels, libraries, and other public places, which eventually led to desegregation. Freedom Riders - blacks and whites from the North and South - rode interstate buses to protest segregated bus stations, and in 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission banned segregation in bus terminals. There also were numerous voter registration drives to help blacks throughout the South exercise their right to cast ballots.

King supported or took part in numerous nonviolent protests and was frequently jailed on charges such as violating state trespassing laws, obstructing the sidewalk, parading without a permit, failing to obey a police officer sent to stop a prayer vigil at the Albany, Georgia, city hall. In April 1963, King participated in sit-in demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, and was again arrested and jailed. While in the Birmingham City Jail, he wrote an open letter to white clergymen who had criticized his actions.

Letter from Birmingham City Jail

In reaction to King's protests, eight white religious leaders issued "An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense," a public statement arguing against civil disobedience. The statement also inferred that King was an "outside agitator." In his letter, King pointed out that he was hardly an "outsider," since he was president of the SCLC that had affiliates across the South. More important, though, was his argument that direct action was needed to counteract Birmingham's "ugly record of police brutality" and "unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts." He also responded to the religious leaders' charges that protests were "untimely." King wrote in part:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was "well timed," according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never." . . . We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.

I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a fiveyear-old son asking in agonizing pathos: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

King's letter was published in pamphlet form by the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker organization) and was widely quoted. Parts of the letter were reprinted in newspapers and magazines. In addition, the letter or portions of it are read aloud during some celebrations of African-American History Month.

Reprinted by arrangement with the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., c/o Writers House as agent for the proprietor New York, NY. Copyright 1963 Martin Luther King Jr., copyright renewed 1991 Coretta Scott King.

March on Washington

In the summer of 1963, a massive March on Washington was planned to support a new civil rights bill that President John F. Kennedy had sent to Congress. Organizers of the march hoped to pressure congressional members to pass the bill. More than 200,000 black and white marchers gathered before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on August 28, 1963, and listened to Martin Luther King Jr. present an eloquent address that was televised across the nation. King noted that African Americans were ready to collect on the "promissory note" of equality specified in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. He ended with the celebrated words that are repeated time and again during the King holiday: "even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed - we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

In 1964, King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He was 35 years old. When he learned about his selection, he declared that he would donate the prize money to the civil rights movement. In his acceptance speech, he said that the

Reprinted by arrangement with the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., c/o Writers House as agent for the proprietor New York, NY. Copyright 1963 Martin Luther King Jr., copyright renewed 1991 Coretta Scott King. award was "a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time - the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. . . .Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation."

Confrontations and Violence

Advances toward full citizenship rights for African Americans were not peaceful, however. Frequently, nonviolence was met with violent backlashes. One such attack in 1963, perpetrated by members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a racist hate group, killed four girls in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Brutal attacks greeted civil rights activists who planned to march from Selma, Alabama, to the state's capital in Montgomery. In early 1965, King helped organize the march designed to call for African-American voting rights. When the demonstration began on Sunday, March 7, police were on hand with tear gas and clubs, beating marchers as they crossed a bridge leading out of Selma. This "bloody Sunday," as the day was called, is commemorated with a reenactment in the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee. Three weeks later with the help of federal officials, the march was completed. Such demonstrations helped gain support for a new Voting Rights Act.

After the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson took office as President. In 1965, he signed a new Voting Rights Act and invoked the slogan of the civil rights movement and title of its anthem: "We Shall Overcome."

Yet, overcoming racism, prejudice, and discrimination against African Americans was a daunting task, one that had to be tackled in the North as well as the South. In 1966 King went to Chicago where he hoped to campaign against urban poverty. But he had difficulty organizing blacks who came from diverse economic backgrounds and did not necessarily share the same goals. This was also a time when many black militants were denouncing King's nonviolent approach and his call for racial integration (see also Malcolm X's Birthday).

King continued his message of nonviolence, however, applying it to the Vietnam War and taking an antiwar stance. He also persisted in his antipoverty efforts, forming the Poor People's Campaign in 1967. Less than a year later he was in Memphis, Tennessee, where he addressed a church audience. The next night, April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of a Memphis motel, he was shot and killed. James Earl Ray, a white segregationist, was convicted of assassinating the great civil rights leader.

© 1964 The Nobel Foundation. After her husband's death, Coretta Scott King said that she was "more determined than ever that my husband's dream will become a reality." A forceful activist in her own right, she immediately founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and began a campaign to establish her husband's birthday as a national holiday. For the rest of her life she was an advocate for peace and human rights, traveling the globe and speaking out about racial and economic injustice. She died in 2006.

King's Legacy

The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. persists to this day. He has been remembered over the decades for his nonviolent protests and passive resistance to achieve civil rights. Also among his most important contributions were his efforts on behalf of legislation to end racial segregation in public facilities through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and to expand voting rights with passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Because of King's example, thousands of people in the United States as well as around the world have committed themselves to community service. His brief life also has inspired others to develop programs that foster mutual respect among diverse groups and to work for world peace.

Creation of the Holiday

Four days after King's assassination, U.S. Representative John Conyers of Michigan introduced a bill to create a national holiday to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. The bill stalled in Congress, but during each congressional session over a 15year period the proposal was resubmitted.

Although many African Americans signed petitions and lobbied Congress for the holiday, there was stiff opposition from diverse groups. Some congressional members claimed that the holiday would cost the federal government $18 million in lost services if employees got the day off. State governments and private businesses were equally concerned as estimates of total costs for the holiday reached $8 billion.

Another argument against the holiday came from those who thought that King was being given preferential treatment over other famous individuals. Certainly some opposition stemmed from racist attitudes.

Meantime, though, states began to create their own King holidays. Finally in 1983, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to establish a Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday, which became effective in 1986.


Across the United States, the King holiday is frequently observed with solemn reflection on the principles for which the civil rights leader stood. Many churches hold ecumenical memorial services, bringing together people of diverse racial, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds.

The weekend of the holiday is also a time for families and friends to meet in private homes. Civic gatherings take place as well, with prominent individuals delivering speeches that recount King's deeds and how he inspired people around the world to seek peace and freedom. Some organizations encourage people to volunteer and spend the day in service to those less fortunate. During the holiday (and all through the year as well) individuals, families, and tour groups may visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site established in 1980 by the National Park Service. The site is east of downtown Atlanta, Georgia, and includes the home where King was born, the church where he worshipped, and his burial place.

Although public schools are closed for the holiday, King is honored in classrooms on the days before the observance with readings from books about his life, artwork depicting King, choral groups singing "We Shall Overcome," and numerous other activities.

From coast to coast, annual marches and parades are held to honor King in such cities as Albany, New York; Raleigh, North Carolina; Washington, D.C.; and St. Petersburg, Florida.

Since 1982 a nonprofit group called MLK365 has organized events in Sacramento, California. The celebration begins with a 2.5-hour march - a visual portrayal of King's dream with people of diverse backgrounds, races, and ages coming together to show their support. The march ends at the Sacramento Convention Center, where there are job and health fairs and workshops, activities for children, and musical performances. In Oakland, California, a Mormon Temple has an annual Down Home Martin Luther King Potluck Celebration in which participants bring their favorite dish from "back home" to share. They also see films of significant events from King's life and listen to readings from his works.

In Rockville, Maryland, 500 residents celebrated the 2006 holiday by listening to prominent speakers, among them retired Brigadier General Clara Adams-Ender, an African American who came from a low-income family and during her military career rose to become a U.S. Army general. She is the author of My Rise to the Stars: How a Share- cropper's Daughter Became an Army General . The celebration also included choir, drum, and dance performances.

At various venues in the metropolitan area of Detroit, Michigan, celebrations took place all weekend of the King holiday in 2006. There was a King "Appreciation Day" at all the Metroparks. Featured speakers appeared at area colleges, such as Oakland University, Michigan State University, and Wayne County Community College. Concerts were also held at the schools. A King Day breakfast was held at Detroit's Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and there was even a give-away of free roses at a florist shop in the city.

Contacts and Web Sites

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History 315 E. Warren Ave. Detroit, MI 48201 313-494-5800

Civil Rights Movement Veterans

Down Home Martin Luther King Potluck Celebration Mormon Temple 4780 Lincoln Blvd. Oakland, CA 94602 510-654-2592

"Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month" Louisiana State University Libraries Baton Rouge, LA 70803 225-578-5652; fax: 225-578-6825

Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change 449 Auburn Ave., N.E. Atlanta, GA 30312 404-526-8900

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service Corporation for National and Community Service 1201 New York Ave., N.W. Washington, DC 20525 202-606-5000; TTY: 202-606-3472

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site 450 Auburn Ave., N.E. Atlanta, GA 30312 404-331-5190; fax: 404-730-3112

Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project Cypress Hall D-Wing Stanford University Stanford, CA 94305-4146

MLK365 650 Howe Ave., Ste. 1014 Sacramento, CA 95825 916-479-1918

Rockville (Maryland) Human Rights Commission City Hall 111 Maryland Ave. Rockville, MD 20850 240-314-8316

Further Reading

Anyike, James C. African American Holidays: A Historical Research and Resource Guide to Cultural Celebrations . Chicago: Popular Truth, 1991. Branch, Taylor. At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. ---. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. ---. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. Clayborne, Carson. "King, Martin Luther, Jr." In African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Colaiaco, James A. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Apostle of Militant Nonviolence. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988. Fairclough, Adam. Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995. Gay, Kathlyn, and Martin K. Gay. Heroes of Conscience: A Biographical Dictionary. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1996. King, Coretta Scott. My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. Revised edition. New York: Henry Holt, 1993. Williams, Juan, with the Eyes in the Prize Production Team. Eyes on the Prize: Ameri- ca's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965. Intoduction by Julian Bond. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987.

Writings by Martin Luther King Jr.

Letter from Birmingham City Jail . Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee, May 1963. Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech Stride Toward Freedom. New York: Harper & Row, 1958. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by James M. Washington. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? New York: Harper & Row, 1967.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007

King (Martin Luther, Jr.), Birthday

Federal holiday: third Monday in January; birthday: January 15
In 1955 Rosa Parks, a black seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to obey a bus driver's order to give up her seat to a white male passenger. She was fined $14 for her defiance of the Jim Crow (segregationist) law that required blacks to sit in the rear of buses, and if the bus were crowded, to give up their seat to a white passenger. The incident led to a citywide bus boycott and raised its leader, the young black Baptist minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to national prominence.
King went on to establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and to play an active role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He was in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, organizing a strike of the city's predominantly black sanitation workers, when he was shot to death at the age of 39 by James Earl Ray.
Martin Luther King Day is a federal holiday, the only one that honors a person who was not a president; federal government offices are closed on that day. It has become a focal point for recognition of African-American history and the American civil rights movement led by Dr. King. It is also a legal holiday in all 50 states, since New Hampshire signed its King holiday legislation into law in 1999. In Alabama it became Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee's Birthday, observed on the third Monday in January. The same day in Virginia is called Lee-Jackson-King Day, combining Dr. King's birthday with those of Robert E. Lee and Andrew "Stonewall" Jackson ( see also Lee Day, Robert E. and Jackson's Birthday, Andrew). In schools, the day is often observed with special lessons and assembly programs dealing with Dr. King's life and work.
See also Bridge Crossing Jubilee
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc.
449 Auburn Ave. N.E.
Atlanta, GA 30312
Library of Congress
101 Independence Ave. S.E.
Washington, DC 20540
202-707-5000; fax: 202-707-8366
AAH-2007, p. 298
AmerBkDays-2000, pp. 72, 254
AnnivHol-2000, p. 9
BkHolWrld-1986, Jan 15
DictDays-1988, p. 73
DictWrldRel-1989, p. 407
HolSymbols-2009, p. 541
PatHols-2006, p. 185
RelHolCal-2004, p. 90
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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