Martin Luther King Jr. Day Honors Civil Rights Leader with Federal Holiday

rev. dr. martin luther king played an enormous role in the civil rights movement

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Martin Luther King Jr. Day honors the achievements of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The federal holiday is celebrated annually on the third Monday in January, close to Dr. King’s birthday. Dr. King came to national prominence in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr
Prominent civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pursued an end to segregation and racial injustice. Photo by Rowland Scherman / Wikipedia / Public Domain

On the third Monday of every January, Americans celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. AmeriCorps notes that the holiday itself is “the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service to encourage all Americans to volunteer to improve their communities.”

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. He became one of the most prominent figures in the civil rights movement in the United States, alongside U.S. Representative John Lewis, Malcolm X, and Roy Wilkins. Dr. King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, calling for an end to segregation and racial injustice, as he worked toward the passage of civil rights legislation, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He came to national prominence in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which brought about the desegregation of public buses and gained momentum for activism in the civil rights movement.

From Brown II to Rosa Parks’ Arrest

In the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional. However, the fight for equality was far from over.

“The following year, in a decision called Brown II, the Court said that school desegregation should now take place with ‘all deliberate speed,'” said Dr. Patrick N. Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University. “That’s an ambiguous phrase, because being deliberate about something could mean that you’re actually doing it rather slowly, and certainly the defenders of racial segregation took it in that light.”

Dr. Allitt said that in most southern states where segregation had been the law, many people dragged their feet to delay integration. The activist phase of the civil rights movement, understandably, followed.

“The buses in Montgomery, Alabama, were segregated, and Rosa Parks, who was a local member of the NAACP, agreed that she’d challenge the local segregation laws; she was a black woman,” Dr. Allitt said. “She would do so by sitting in an area that was reserved for white passengers.”

Following the arrest of Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955, the NAACP needed someone to organize the mass protest of the ongoing bus boycott. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was appointed to lead what turned out to be a 13-month boycott. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional.

Dr. King Faces Adversity

Despite the importance of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in bringing the need for civil rights to a greater public attention nationwide, Dr. King’s activism was no easy task.

“King’s great fear, of course, was that at first, in a fever of enthusiasm, people would get off the buses and refuse to ride, but gradually the need to get to and from their jobs and the convenience of being able to ride the bus would lead them to get back on,” Dr. Allitt said. “He, therefore, needed a way to maintain community solidarity, and it was done through the churches.

“Two or three times a week, they’d have big prayer services, get together, sing evangelical songs, and he’d preach passionate sermons, most of whose content was religious, but just with a political message at the end.”

Dr. Allitt said it was this that kept the movement going and the boycott successful. However, Dr. King also dealt with vicious threats at home amid his fight for equality, and yet he never stopped fighting.

“King himself endured death threats, people fired guns at his house, a bomb threat, and so on,” Dr. Allitt said. “He also helped to organize car pools to enable Black workers who worked far from their homes to be shipped from one place to another as an alternative to the buses.”

Tragically, Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, when he was just 39 years old, by Charles Lee Ray. However, Dr. King’s legacy is that his spirit continues to endure as the nation and the world seek to have equal rights for people from all ethnicities and as we try to better our communities.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Patrick N. Allitt contributed to this article. Dr. Allitt is the Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University

Dr. Patrick N. Allitt contributed to this article. Dr. Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, where he has taught since 1988. The holder of a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Allitt-an Oxford University graduate-has also taught American religious history at Harvard Divinity School, where he was a Henry Luce Postdoctoral Fellow.