Born on January 15, 1929, we celebrate a holiday in honor of a man who was not a president, nor an explorer, nor a saint, rather he was a Baptist minister and an American leader of the 1960s civil rights movement who was named after the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. Though he was awarded by President Carter the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1977, it was not until 1986 that a day was established on his birthday as a federal holiday.
The only other American federal holidays that honored individuals have been for Jesus, Presidents Washington and Lincoln, and Christopher Columbus.
Though Martin Luther King, Jr. had an earned doctorate degree, he was also an ordained minister, the son and grandson of ministers. From his biblical roots came many of the metaphors of his talks, the text of his presentations, and the cadence of his speech. He served as a minister starting in 1954 in Alabama, where after he led the boycott against segregation on buses that lasted 382 days. During this time he was arrested, his house was bombed, and he suffered personal abuse.
It was his involvement in the American Civil Rights Movement that gave him his greatest visibility, as he began in 1957 non-violent civil disobedience, not unlike Ghandi’s in India. Marches and protests were an effective means of accomplishing many of his goals, culminating in 1963 with the the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” and his most famous speech, entitled “I Have A Dream” which he delivered from the Lincoln Memorial in the Mall of Washington, DC.
The following year, in 1964 he received the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest recipient. Though initially successful in the South, King also brought his movement to the North, specifically Chicago in 1966, out of which grew equal opportunity programs.
1967 saw King deliver a comprehensive statement against the Vietnam War in his speech in New York City’s Riverside Church entitled “Beyond Vietnam.” This was met with criticism from many activists and newspapers, though he argued that he was not merging the civil rights and peace movements.
Nevertheless, he continued in speaking out against the Vietnam War and in 1967 he spoke in Sproul Plaza at the school I would later attend, the University of California at Berkeley where he told students,
“You, in a real sense, have been the conscience of the academic community and our nation.”
In 1968, King gave a prescient speech called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” in which he said about God that:
“He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain! And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord!”
The next day, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee. National riots followed until five days later President Johnson declared a national day of mourning for King. 300,000 people attended his funeral. Since his death he has become a symbol of protest in the pursuit of racial justice, and as he said in his seminal speech “I Have A Dream” the majestic spiritual “soul force” rather than physical force.
As I write this on a snowy day from Colorado Springs, I am reminded of his charge at the end of that same speech,
“…from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado… let freedom ring.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian