Every third Monday in January, America commemorates Martin Luther King Jr., whose unforgettable speech "I Have a Dream" changed US history. We explain the most important facts about the life of the African-American civil rights activist and the background of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, as the son of a Baptist preacher. Since his father, Martin Luther King Sr., was himself an activist of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, King Jr. dealt with the issue of inequality between the white and African-American population from a very young age.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s career as a civil rights activist began in 1955 after the Rosa Parks incident in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was a minister at the time. In 1950s America, African Americans were segregated from the white population in almost every aspect of life (school, church, public buildings, and transportation) - especially in the Southern states. Rosa Parks, an African American woman, refused to give up her seat on a public bus for a white person, even though she would have been required to do so under the then-applicable segregation laws (Jim Crow Laws). The sentencing of Parks to a fine led to a movement of solidarity within the African American community and numerous protests.
In the years that followed, Martin Luther King Jr. campaigned tirelessly for equality. In the process, he received a great deal of attention, especially through his gripping speeches. He also undertook the March on Washington (1963), the Selma to Montgomery March (1965), and the March on Jackson (1966) as a form of political demonstration.
King's commitment would pay off: President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which abolished racial segregation in the USA. In the same year, Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.
On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. became the victim of an assassination attack: James Earl Ray, a racist with multiple convictions, shot him on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. To this day, however, numerous conspiracy theories surround the death of the famous civil rights activist.
On August 28th, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his world-famous speech "I Have a Dream" as part of the March on Washington. The touching words, which were to change American history forever, were followed live by 250,000 enthusiastic supporters at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., African-American Congressman John Conyers first pushed for a holiday in honor of the civil rights leader. However, the efforts were not rewarded until much later: President Ronald Reagan signed the law establishing the new federal holiday in 1983.
Starting in 1986 - almost 20 years after King's death - America has been commemorating the civil rights leader on Martin Luther King Jr. Day every third Monday in January. The holiday thus always takes place on or close to Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday on January 15th.
Since Martin Luther King Jr. Day is still relatively new compared to other US holidays, there are not so many traditions yet. Apart from smaller celebrations, the holiday is mainly observed in silence. In African-American communities, in particular, it is an occasion for church services and singing.
You probably didn't know these interesting facts about Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and work:
Do you want to learn more about celebrations that only exist in the USA? Don't miss our articles on Independence Day, Memorial Day, or the latest US holiday Juneteenth.