How MLK Jr. Day Came to BeJanuary 12, 2018
Martin Luther King Jr. was a social activist who led the civil rights movement in the United States until his tragic assassination in 1968. His efforts were fundamental to ending the legal segregation of African Americans in the South and other parts of the country. Martin Luther King’s legacy is still a significant part of our education today. How MLK Jr. Day came to be is not as well known as his infamous I Have a Dream speech, but it also has a rich and telling history.
The world was very different when Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in Atlanta during the Jim Crow era. At the time, Jim Crow laws forced people of different races to use “separate but equal” public facilities like trains, businesses, schools, and bathrooms. Violent riots would often break out to protest laws that treated African Americans unequally and unfairly.
At a time when it seemed the country would continue to be torn apart, Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of nonviolent protest changed the way America viewed the Civil Rights struggle. Instead of focusing on the violence, it was the message of peace that became the driving force behind the movement. King was inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The want to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday began shortly after his assassination. Many politicians had concerns because they felt that if King were recognized, they would have to continue reserving holidays for other minority figures that were also deserving. Other oppositions included the amount of money it would take for a paid day off for government workers.
It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan’s presidency that the holiday was signed into law. In the early 1980’s, the United States declared that every third Monday in January was to be celebrated as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Today, you will find people celebrating with vigils, peaceful marches, and uplifting speeches. Others will devote the day to public service in the name of peace and equality for all.
Despite being passed into law as a federal holiday under the Reagan administration in 1983, the first MLK Jr. Day was not officially celebrated by most states until 1986. This was 18 years after his assassination. At first most states did not recognize the holiday as MLK Jr. day. Some gave the national holiday alternative names such as Human Rights Day or Civil Rights Day and even combined it with other holidays. It was not until 2000 when all fifty states officially observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the way it was intended!
While we take the time to remember the achievements of Martin Luther King and how he changed our country for the better, it is essential to keep the journey of this day of remembrance in mind. The complex history of both the man and the holiday continue to give many Americans much to think about.