Martin Luther King Jr. Day

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Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Type of Holiday: Historic, National
Date of Observation: Third Monday in January
Where Celebrated: Throughout the United States and U.S. territories, and by more than 100 nations around the world
Symbols and Customs: "I Have a Dream" Speech


Born on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. was the son of Martin Luther King Sr., the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He achieved national prominence in 1955, when he led the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. The boycott was designed to end segregation in the city's transit system after Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, refused to obey a bus driver's order to give up her seat to a white male passenger and was fined $14. In 1960 King was chosen to head the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, giving him the organizational base he needed to extend his campaign for civil rights throughout the South. He organized many protests and marches, among them the August 1963 "March on Washington," at which he delivered his now famous " I HAVE A DREAM " SPEECH . Throughout his life he practiced nonviolent resistance and advocated peaceful protest against his country's segregationist practices. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968. He had come to Memphis to help organize a strike of the city's sanitation workers, most of whom were black. He was shot while standing on the balcony outside his motel room. The assassination sparked riots in 120 American cities that year and led to a tremendous increase in the kind of violence that King had worked for more than a decade to prevent.

Eight days later, U.S. Representative John Conyers from Michigan called for a federal holiday honoring Dr. King. Atlanta was the first city to designate King's birthday as a paid holiday for city employees in 1971, and in 1973, Illinois became the first state to declare January 15 a statewide holiday. On January 15, 1981, which would have been King's fifty-second birthday, more than 100,000 people gathered at the Washington Monument to rally for a national holiday. Legislation was finally passed by Congress in 1983 setting aside the third Monday in January to honor King. This day is only the tenth national holiday approved by Congress, and it is the only one honoring an American other than past U.S. presidents.

National holidays can be defined as those commemorations that a nation's government has deemed important enough to warrant inclusion in the list of official public holidays. They tend to honor an event or a person, like King, who has been critical in the development of the nation and its identity. Such people and events usually reflect values and traditions shared by a large portion of the citizenry. In the United States, patiotism and identity were nurtured by the very act of celebrating new events as national holidays. The invention of traditions and the marking of important occasions in the life of the new nation were crucial in creating a shared bond of tradition and a sense of common belonging to a relatively new homeland through the shared experience of celebrating common holidays. As more and diverse peoples migrated to the United States, it became even more important to celebrate significant annual anniversaries, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day has become one of the nation's most important shared celebrations.


"I Have a Dream" Speech

Oratory was Martin Luther King's greatest talent. The speech he delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, on August 28, 1963, almost immediately became a symbol of the civil rights movement. It was heard by an audience of 250,000 who had assembled there during the famous March on Washington to win the support of Congress and the president for pending civil rights legislation. When King was assassinated five years later, the speech became a symbol of his lifelong effort to end segregation through nonviolent means.

King repeated the phrase "I Have a Dream" at several points during the speech, building intensity with each repetition. Those who were close to King at the time say that he spent days agonizing over each paragraph, sentence, and punctuation mark-as if he knew it would be the speech by which he would be remembered. Excerpts from the "I Have a Dream" speech are still broadcast on television and radio around the time of the King holiday. It is often accompanied by the singing of "We Shall Overcome," widely regarded as the theme song of the civil rights movement.


Anyike, James C. African American Holidays. Revised and Expanded ed. Chicago: Popular Truth Pub., 1997. Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Gay, Kathlyn. African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2007. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Henderson, Helene. Patriotic Holidays of the United States. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2006. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Schaun, George and Virginia, and David Wisniewski. American Holidays and Special Days. 3rd ed. Lanham: Maryland Historical Press, 2002.


Library of Congress

The King Center
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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