Why Do We Celebrate MLK, Jr. Day?

Exactly ninety years ago from this month, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born. He was a social activist, humanitarian, and Baptist minister from Atlanta, Georgia. King played an important role in the American civil rights movement from the 1950s until his assassination in 1968. Dr. King strived for equal rights for African Americans and all victims of injustice through non-violence. Inspired by his faith and the peaceful teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, King used the power of his words as well as peaceful demonstrations to fight for the equality of all people. He famously used this peaceful approach during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington. In this day and age, celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is more important than ever before.

Dr. King was born on January 15, 1929 in Georgia to a pastor and a former school teacher. He was the second child of Martin Luther King Sr., and Alberta Williams King. Dr. King was a gifted student growing up. He skipped ninth and twelfth grade and attended Morehouse College at the young age of 15. After graduating, he attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania in 1948. There he earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree, won a fellowship, and was elected president of his class. Dr. King then enrolled at Boston University and earned his doctorate in systematic theology two years later. While he was studying in Boston, he met Coretta Scott, a young singer at the time attending the New England Conservatory of Music. They married in 1953, settled down in Montgomery, Alabama, and went on to have four children.

Dr. Martin Luther King was the pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954. While he was serving as a pastor, Rosa Parks got arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. Following this, the Montgomery Bus Boycott formed. Most African Americans refused to ride the public bus system in Montgomery at that time. In February of 1956, Dr. King was arrested on charges of conspiracy. The boycott lasted 382 days, and the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that racial segregation on public transportation was illegal. In 1957 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed. The goal of the organization was to fight for civil rights by peaceful protests that were based on the writings of Thoreau and actions of Gandhi. The protests and demonstrations helped to form the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Dr. King had been arrested countless times for his activism for civil rights. In 1963, there were numerous sit-ins, boycotts, and marches to protest against segregation in restaurants. In one of these protests, Dr. King was arrested again. While in jail, he wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” encouraging people to protest against unjust laws and unequal treatment. On August 28, 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King gave his inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. There were roughly 250,000 demonstrators in attendance. The speech, which shared his vision for the future, was a call for peace and equality for African Americans. Dr. King referenced the Declaration of Independence saying, “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.’” A quote that is more relevant today than ever before. In 1963, King was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. The next year in 1964 he received the Noble Peace Prize, making him the youngest person ever to receive the award. On March 7, 1965 a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama was attempted. The first attempt was met with police brutality that ended up on the televisions of millions of Americans. The images that were seen on television led to people not previously involved, beginning to speak up for change. The march was attempted again, and the protestors were able to hear Dr. King speak at the Capitol on March 25, 1965. Three years later on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He was shot while standing on the balcony at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King died at the age of 39. It was a truly devastating moment in American history. After his death, Michigan Congressman John Conyers Jr. proposed to make MLK Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Making MLK Jr. Day a national holiday was not without controversy. On November 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed a bill to officially celebrate the holiday on every third Monday of January starting in 1986. By 2000, all 50 U.S. states officially recognized MLK Jr. Day as a national holiday.

Martin Luther King Jr. made great strides in the quest for equality. His accomplishments during the American Civil Rights movement were vast. King’s advocation for the equal rights of African Americans laid the foundation for equality of other minorities including myself. Being mixed-race and born in Russia, the civil rights movement has benefitted my family and I and I feel grateful that I live in a country that fought for and won equal rights for all people. Today the United States is closer to the dream that King had said in his speech in 1963, all thanks to him. As a nation of people from different cultures and backgrounds we have come a long way, but there is still more to accomplish and that’s why celebrating MLK Jr. Day in this day and age is just as important now as ever before.

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