Martin Luther King Day: The Origins and Traditions
A Day to Celebrate Civil Rights Activist Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King Day has been celebrated on the third Monday in January since Congress made it a national holiday in 1983. Since then, America has celebrated not only the man (the only national holiday to celebrate a private American citizen), but the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.
The youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, King was a Baptist minister who advocated nonviolence as he lead the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The man of peace was tragically shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, while speaking from the balcony of his hotel room. However, it was not until 2000 that every state began celebrating Martin Luther King Day.
His most famous speech was the “I Have A Dream” speech where he stated, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He is best remembered as a man who saw the future in America as free for all people, regardless of race or creed.
King espoused a Social Gospel that was largely based on Mahatma Gandhi. The Social Gospel was a liberal movement within American Protestantism designed to apply Christian ethics to current social ills. The moral imperative King saw in the Social Gospel needed a practical model, and King found that in the teachings of Gandhi. King’s greatest desire was that we would, in the future, “see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color. This is the gospel that I will preach to the world.” He was determined to find a vehicle to combat racism and disenfranchisement, and that vehicle was the Civil Rights Movement, where he followed the Indian independence leader’s nonviolent civil disobedience model.
His first challenge to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s commitment to nonviolence came in 1955 during the Montgomery, Alabama, bus Boycott. At the end of 381 days of civil disobedience following Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed the city’s segregationist laws unconstitutional, a victory for the fledgling Civil Rights Movement—a victory that propelled King into the national spotlight.
But not everyone agreed with King. A group of Alabama clergymen were opposed to his public demonstrations, to which King responded in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” stating that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” King had been jailed during protests in Birmingham, Alabama.
He was opposed by many who were in favor of the Viet Nam War, which he openly disputed. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to support a local sanitation workers’ strike. While making a speech from the balcony of his hotel room, King was assassinated. He was 39.
Martin Luther King Day: A National Holiday
Immediately after his death, the effort to commemorate King with a national holiday began. A mere four day after he died, Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to create a national holiday celebrating King’s birthday. The Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who was King’s successor as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), said that a holiday would not only honor King himself, but would also pay tribute to the achievements of black Americans as well. Others believed that such a holiday would support Americans of all races for both King’s work and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.
Conyer’s bill was unsuccessful, but many communities across the United States celebrated King’s birthday anyway. Local governments and schools closed for the day, and civic groups held vigils and marches and gave speeches in his honor. Coretta Scott King founded the King Center in Atlanta in 1968, which became a pronounced advocate in favor of establishing a national holiday during the 1970s. In 1973, Illinois became the first state to honor King with a holiday.
Opposition to creating a national holiday to honor King went on for fifteen years. Many opponents questioned whether someone who had never held public office or served in the military justified another paid government holiday, which, they maintained was an unnecessary public expense. George Washington was the only other American with a holiday in his honor, excluding other leaders such as Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. Some in Congress objected based on King’s criticism of the Viet Nam War and his alleged ties to communism. Finally, in 1983, Congress passed legislation officially creating a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., on the third Monday in January. Seventeen years after the holiday was made official, South Carolina became the last state to include Martin Luther King Day in its celebrations.
Many people see Martin Luther King Day as a day to honor King through community service. The King Holiday and Service Act, passed by Congress in 1994, authorizes grants to eligible entities to carry out community service projects in coordination with the holiday. The King Center states, “Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not only for celebration and remembrance, education and tribute, but above all a day of service.”