How African-Americans Stand 40 Years after the Death of Martin Luther King

Article excerpt

At age 6, Martin Luther King Jr. was jarred when a parent of a white friend said the boys could no longer play together because he was black. Another time, King's father, a minister, was driving a car when a white policeman pulled him over for no obvious reason. "Listen, boy," he began, only to be cut off when the Rev. King pointed to his son in the passenger seat. "That is a boy. I am a man."

At age 14, King experienced a similar incident. While returning from a school debating competition, the driver threatened to call the police if he didn't move to the back of the bus.

King felt the pangs of racial bigotry growing up in Atlanta - and they stoked a fire within him. The son and grandson of pastors in Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, King pursued theological studies, culminating in a doctorate from Boston University in 1955. Late that year, he led a nonviolent bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., to protest Rosa Parks's arrest for refusing to move from whites-only seats at the front of a city bus. The boycott lasted 382 days.

In 1957 King was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where he continued his civil rights activism, eventually leading a mass protest in Birmingham, Ala., over unfair hiring practices and customer discrimination. In 1963, he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 250,000. It predated passage of the seminal 1964 Civil Rights Act by a year.

King was unbowed by arrests, assaults, and a bombing of his home meant to thwart his cause. In 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Four years later, while preparing to lead a march of striking garbage collectors in Memphis, Tenn., he was assassinated on a motel balcony.

History of MLK Day

1968: Days after King's assassination, Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan files a bill in Congress to commemorate his life. It lanquishes, despite repeated efforts to revive it.

1973: Illinois is the first state to adopt the holiday.

1983: The initiative receives a lift from major civil rights marches in Washington in 1982 and 1983, when the bill finally passes. But the holiday is moved from Jan. 15 (King's birthday) to the third Monday in January to avoid other observances.

1986: Federal holiday observance begins.

1992: Arizona, whose governor rescinded the holiday in 1987, adopts it in the face of economic boycotts.

1993: Some version of the holiday is held in all 50 states for first time.

1999: New Hampshire becomes the last state to grant paid-holiday status.

2000: Utah becomes the last state to adopt the name, MLK Day, dropping its Human Rights Day designation. …