Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a United States federal holiday marking the birthday of civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is observed on the third Monday of January each year, which is close the time of King’s actual birthday, January 15.
King was the chief spokesman for nonviolent activism in the civil rights movement, which successfully protested racial discrimination in both federal and state law. King has become a national icon for his eloquence and his successfully challenging the then-prevailing mindset of racism in the United States, effectively ending the legal codification of discrimination based on race and creating a new birth of equality for all people which still endures and grows in American Society today.
The campaign for a federal holiday in King’s honor began soon after his assassination in 1968. United States Representative John Conyers (a Democrat from Michigan) and United States Senator Edward Brooke (a Republican from Massachusetts) introduced a bill in Congress to make King’s birthday a national holiday. The bill first came to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1979. However, it fell five votes short of the number needed for passage.
Soon after this, the King Center turned to support from the corporate community and the general public. The success of this strategy was cemented when musician Stevie Wonder released the single “Happy Birthday” to popularize the campaign in 1980 and hosted the Rally for Peace Press Conference in 1981. Six million signatures were eventually collected for a petition to Congress to pass the law, termed by some as “the largest petition in favor of an issue in U.S. history.”
At the White House Rose Garden on November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill, which was proposed by Representative Katie Hall of Indiana, creating the federal holiday to honor King. It was observed for the first time on January 20, 1986.
The holiday is celebrated in many different ways throughout the nation, with many schools and businesses being closed in observance of it, but one of the most popular ways of remembering King and his contribution to the freedom of all peoples is in the viewing of his “I Have A Dream” speech, which is available for viewing on YouTube HERE.
The “I Have a Dream” is a 17-minute public speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered on August 28, 1963, in which he called for an end to racism in the United States. The speech, delivered to over 200,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was a defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement. Widely hailed as a masterpiece of rhetoric, King’s speech invoked the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the United States Constitution and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
The part of the speech which most excited the crowd at the time, and which has now become the most famous, is the last portion where King described dreams of freedom and equality arising from a land of slavery and hatred. Perhaps the most famous line of all, a line which is now seen as a symbol for freedom and racial equality and is know by heart by millions today is the following:
“I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”