Monday, January 16, 2023

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

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Today the USA is observing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which is also designated as a National Day of Service in order to encourage people to volunteer in ways that improve their communities. I've collected some resources to share a bit of history and background to this national holiday.

Who Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

King was born on January 15, 1929, and was named Michael Jr. after his father. But his father visited Germany and was so impressed by the Protestant leader Martin Luther that he changed his own name to Martin Luther King. Michael Jr. later followed suit and became Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1954, King was the minister of Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and in 1956 he led the black boycott of segregated bus lines in the city. (After Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white man.) King was already serving on a committee looking into challenging the Jim Crow laws, but was initially reluctant to lead the boycott. He agreed when other ministers pointed out that being a relative newcomer to the area, he might have more freedom to speak out against the injustice. The boycott lasted over a year, but eventually was successful when Montgomery desegregated the bus service. 

King organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to lead the fight for civil rights through his philosophy of nonviolent resistance. That resistance led to thirty arrests during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1963 he gained worldwide attention during protests in Birmingham, Alabama, and for the March on Washington he organized. More than 200,000 people participated in the March, and it was where he delivered his famous "I Have A Dream" speech. 

Did you know? That iconic speech originally was not intended to include that four-word phrase by which we know it today! King met with trusted advisors the day before the event to work out details of his speech. The draft and outline had already been written and King wanted input from the advisors because he knew how important this speech would be. The three hours of planned speeches from leaders of the March would be broadcast by the major TV networks, and King wanted to deliver something that would have maximum impact. At that meeting, it was suggested that he not use the 'dream' language that had been the theme of many of his previous speeches, since it might be considered cliche or trite by that time. But once King had started speaking, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted for him to "tell them about the dream" and that is what he did, abandoning the script from that point and delivering a message so powerful that it is still moving and powerful today. That event, that speech, and the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. were influential in the federal government finally taking actions to address racial inequality. In 1964, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest recipient at 35 years old, and the third black man to receive it.

You can visit to learn more about that background: Martin Luther King Jr's Famous Speech Almost Didn't Have the Phrase 'I Have A Dream'. This video from summarizes that background if you'd prefer to watch and listen:

Here is video of the speech, edited a little, but still powerful: 

And among the documents available at the National Archives website, you can read the full text of Dr. King's speech in a pdf: "I Have A Dream" speech.

Martin Luther King, Jr. continued to work for civil rights, and went on to criticize the Vietnam War and work to address poverty. While in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking workers, he was shot and killed on April 4, 1968.

Just four days later, the first legislation to establish a holiday in his honor was introduced. Over time, various states adopted MLK Jr. Day, beginning with a state holiday in Illinois in 1973. In 1983, a national Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established, to be observed on the Third Monday of every January, beginning in 1986.

This video from gives a brief overview of who Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was and how MLK Day came to be observed in the USA:

Want to learn more about American holidays, including MLK Jr. Day? has this resource page for Holidays and Celebrations and also this course geared to fourth- through eighth-graders: History of Holidays in America.

history of holidays in USA

Middle School students may also be interested in the Civil Rights Movement course

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