1: Martin Luther King Jr. Day: An American Holiday

By Kass, Amy A.; Kass, Leon R. | AEI Paper & Studies, January 2013 | Go to article overview

1: Martin Luther King Jr. Day: An American Holiday


Kass, Amy A., Kass, Leon R., AEI Paper & Studies


The Origins and Traditions of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Fifteen years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the third Monday in January became a national holiday to honor the birthday of the slain civil rights leader. A Baptist minister and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, King advocated nonviolence while leading the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s and famously articulated a vision of America wherein every citizen truly had equal rights. Although King championed nonviolence, his life was tragically cut short on April 4, 1968 when he was shot and killed before a demonstration in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the only federal holiday that honors a private American citizen, and, with the celebration of George Washington's Birthday and Columbus Day, one of just three holidays honoring a specific person. Calls for a holiday to honor King began immediately following his death. A 15-year effort on the part of lawmakers and civil rights leaders, buoyed by popular support, culminated in 1983 when the US Congress passed legislation that officially designated the third Monday in January as a federal holiday. However, controversy continued to surround the day, and it was not until 2000 that every state celebrated a holiday in honor of King. Today, Americans use this anniversary not only to pay tribute to one man's efforts in the cause of equal rights, but also to celebrate the Civil Rights Movement as a whole (see next selection).

Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929, the second of three children to Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. and his wife Alberta. Growing up, King Jr. attended Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where his grandfather and father served as pastors. He graduated from a segregated high school at 15 and entered Morehouse College in 1945. Though initially uncertain about whether he wanted to enter the ministry, King chose to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and was ordained during his senior year of college. He then continued his studies at the Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he was elected class president of the majority-white student body and graduated with distinction in 1951. While a doctoral student in systematic theology at Boston University, King met Coretta Scott, a music student originally from Alabama. The coupled married in 1953 and had four children over the next decade: Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter, and Bernice.

As a graduate student, King developed and refined the personal beliefs that would guide his leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. The doctrine of the Social Gospel, a liberal movement within American Protestantism that applied Christian ethics to social problems, became a guiding force in the young minister's theology. King's familial church, Ebenezer Baptist, emphasized social activism, public service, and charity, and his doctoral studies reinforced these teachings. In a 1952 letter to Coretta, King reaffirmed his belief in the Social Gospel, writing that he would "hope, work, and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color. This is the gospel that I will preach to the world." (1)

It was also while studying theology that King first encountered the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, whose advocacy of nonviolence deeply resonated with him. The Indian independence leader's success in using nonviolent civil disobedience led King to hope that the same tactics could work for African Americans in the United States. King believed that nonviolent civil disobedience "breaks with any philosophy or system which argues that the ends justify the means. It recognizes that the end is pre- existent in the means." Moreover, King argued that nonviolence prevents "discontent from degenerating into moral bitterness and hatred," which "is as harmful to the hater as it is to the hated. …

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