Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an American holiday honoring one of the most influential and iconic leaders of the civil rights movement. It is celebrated each year on the third Monday of January, near his birthday of January 15th.
King was born in 1929. His given name was Michael, but later he had it changed to Martin. He grew up in Atlanta, Georgia attending segregated public schools. After earning his high school diploma and starting college at only 15 years old, he went on to obtain a doctorate in 1955. While working on his doctorate in Boston, he met Coretta Scott. They were married and had four children – two daughters and two sons. King became pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist church in Atlanta.
In 1964, after moving to the forefront of the American civil rights movement, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to establish equal rights for African-Americans. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The site is now home to the National Civil Rights Museum.
Establishing a holiday in honor of Dr. King was a long process, full of controversy. The holiday was first proposed just four days after King’s death by John Conyers, a Democratic congressman from Michigan. The bill failed to pass year after year. Critics claimed that anyone who opposed it would be automatically deemed a racist, and that the country should not be bullied into recognizing King above many other figures who were equally deserving of the honor. Others pointed to his suspected communist ties and alleged indiscretions, and demanded his FBI records to be released to the public. Proponents of the bill had the easier job – promoting his tireless, undeniable efforts toward equality. Finally in 1970, Conyers convinced New York to recognize King’s birthday. It was a small but important first step toward establishing a national holiday.
After more than ten years of rejection and despite continued harsh opposition, including an effort to have the holiday changed to “National Civil Rights Day”, congress finally passed the bill in 1983. President Ronald Regan, in his proclamation speech, defended King’s worthiness of the honor: “This year marks the first observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a national holiday. It is a time for rejoicing and reflecting. We rejoice because, in his short life, Dr. King, by his preaching, his example, and his leadership, helped to move us closer to the ideals on which America was founded. . . . He challenged us to make real the promise of America as a land of freedom, equality, opportunity, and brotherhood.” Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of the battle. It was three years, in 1986, before the federal government actually began to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Some areas of the south continued to protest by holding Confederate celebrations on the same day. It wasn’t until the 90’s that MLK day was accepted and celebrated all over the country. New Hampshire was the final state to adopt it as a paid holiday in 1999.