Next Monday, children from all over the country will spend the day known as Martin Luther King Jr. Day away from school, but few of those students, even from schools named after the civil rights leader, recognize or remember much of the controversy surrounding the man and his holiday.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born in January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia to Martin Luther King Sr. and Alberta Williams King. King Jr. also had an older sister, Willie Christine King, and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King.
With formally graduating high school, King Jr. began attending Morehouse College at the age of 15 and graduated in 1948 with a bachelors of arts in Sociology before enrolling at Crozier Theological Seminary and graduating with a Bachelor of Divinity in 1951. King Jr. eventually received a doctorate in Philosophy in 1955
Influenced by the non-violent ideas of Mahatma Ghandi and Howard Thurman, King began non-violent protests of the Montgomery Bus System after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, one of the “Jim Crow” laws that was enforced by the city ordinance. These boycotts would last for more than a year and would lead to the bombing of King’s home.
The boycott ended with a US District court ruling in Browder v. Gayle, ending racial segregation on all public buses in Montgomery.
King would later be a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and participated in several non-violent protests throughout the South.
King’s most famous moment, the March on Washington, took place in 1963. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, regarded as one of the finest speeches in American history, provided a rallying point for American civil rights legislation passed in 1964. King would win the Nobel Peace Prize that same year.
Walter Jefferson, now 74, was a 27-year old man from Maryland when he attended the March and King’s speech.
“That moment changed my life,” said Jefferson. “Until that moment, I had no idea how passionate someone could be. It made me look into the situation down there and I didn’t like it one bit.” Jefferson eventually moved to the South and began volunteering with local groups trying to change attitudes and laws.
In King’s later years, he expressed opposition to the Vietnam War and began a Poor People’s Campaign. King also expressed an attitude towards “Green Power (money)” in the face of the militant “Black Power” movements of Malcolm X.
On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated by James Earl Ray while giving a speech on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis
King’s non-violent methods were mimicked by other activists, most notably Cesar Chavez in California.
Martin Luther King Day has been celebrated as a federal holiday since Congress established it in 1983, although it did take a veto busting majority (338 to 90 in the House of Representatives and 78 to 22 in the Senate) before an initially reluctant President Ronald Reagan signed the measure into law.
The day was first celebrated on January 20, 1986.
Resistance to the holiday has been pointed. In 1986, then Arizona Republican governor Evan Mecham rescinded his state’s involvement in the holiday days after coming into office. In 1990, when the voters failed to pass a proposition to recognize the holiday, the NFL moved the Super Bowl from Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA.
Influential rap group “Public Enemy” would also publish a song entitled “By the time I get to Arizona,” in which they describe the assassination of then governor Fyfe Symington for his opposition to the holiday.
Arizona voters would eventually recognize the holiday in 1992.
In other states, the day was celebrated but not named after King. New Hampshire celebrated “Fast Day” and “Civil Rights Day” before choosing “Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Day” in 1999.
In 2000, South Carolina recognized the day as a state holiday, making them the last to do so in the nation.