On the third Monday of January each year, the life of one of the USA’s leading figures in the history of civil rights is celebrated. The Martin Luther King Jr. Day was approved as a federal holiday in 1986, becoming the first federal holiday in the USA to celebrate an African American citizen.
The day, which celebrates Dr. King’s birthday on January 15, honors his legacy and shines a light on civil rights. King is one of 18 American men and three American women to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. was the most visible spokesperson and leader in the Civil Rights Movement from 1955, leading the Montgomery bus boycott that same year.
Two years later, King became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). It was here he led an unsuccessful 1962 struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia and then helped organise the 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama.
King was passionate about advancing civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience, inspired by his Christian beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.
A great orator, he is, perhaps, best known for his inspirational and highly evocative speech during the 1963 March on Washington. The “I Have a Dream” speech is just as stirring today, nearly sixty years on:
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquillizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick-sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
His speech highlighted the terrible iniquity and fierce racial tensions of America and especially its South but carried a moving message of immense hope:
“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’.”
A year later, in October 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. The following year, he took to the streets again, helping to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches. His activism stretched from the injustices of segregated housing in Chicago to opposition to the Vietnam War.
As he planned to focus attention on the injustice of poverty through a national occupation of Washington, D.C. in 1968, called the Poor People’s Campaign, he was assassinated on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee.
King’s death was followed by riots in many U.S. cities and allegations that the man convicted of his murder, James Earl Ray, had acted in concert with government agents.
King’s words and the celebration of his life on Martin Luther King Jr. Day have taken on even greater significance in an era of political disruption, growing racial tensions and uncertainty.
Perhaps it is telling that America’s first African American President popularized another of King’s famous pieces of oratory: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”