Martin Luther King, Jr. was a social activist and Baptist minister who played a key role in the American civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968. King sought equality and human rights for African Americans, the economically disadvantaged and all victims of injustice through peaceful protest. He was the driving force behind watershed events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington, which helped bring about such landmark legislation as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and is remembered each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a U.S. federal holiday since 1986.
Becoming A Holiday
It took 15 years of fighting for MLK Day to be declared a national holiday. The fight for a holiday in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s honor was an epic struggle in and of itself.
The first push for a holiday honoring King took place just four days after his assassination. John Conyers, then a Democratic Congressman from Michigan, took to the floor of Congress to insist on a federal holiday in King’s honor. However, the request fell on deaf ears. When his first bill failed, Conyers was undaunted. “Conyers would persist year after year, Congress after Congress, in introducing the same bill again and again, gathering co-sponsors along the way, until his persistence finally paid off,” writes historian Don Wolfensberger.
He enlisted the help of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), of which he was a founding member. For 15 years, the CBC attempted to break the stalled legislation loose, advocating within their constituent communities and helping Conyers introduce his bill year after year. Every single attempt failed, even after the bill was brought to the floor for debate.
The tide finally turned in the early 1980s. By then, the CBC had collected six million signatures in support of a federal holiday in honor of King. Stevie Wonder had written a hit song, “Happy Birthday,” about King, which drove an upswell of public support for the holiday. And in 1983, as civil rights movement veterans gathered in Washington to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington, King’s seminal “I Have a Dream” speech, and the 15th anniversary of his murder, something shook loose. The bill passed with ease the following day and President Ronald Reagan immediately signed the legislation.
The Importance of Remembrance
As a Baptist pastor, King led a mass movement for freedom and human rights in the twentieth century. He challenged a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the United States, one that denies equality for all. At 39, King was a private citizen engaged in public protest when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. And to this day, in the twenty-first century, his efforts and accomplishments continue to have an impact. It is important to never forget, everything King was able to accomplish, was through peace.
Come 2020, we had eerily similar protests and calls to action, reflecting the same messages of Dr. King: equal civil rights. And just as it is important to remember what he was able to do through peace, we also walked with peace. Protested with peace. Acted, contributed, spread the word, with peace. It is a long fight, that we are unfortunately still fighting, but real change comes by the practices in which Martin Luther King, Jr. paved the way for.
That's why remembrance is important. Happy MLK Day everyone!