Today, January 21st, Americans and the rest of the world celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his nonviolent resistance to racial prejudice and for putting his life on the line for racial equality and the advancement of African-Americans.
Born Michael King Jr. on Jan. 15, 1929, the future King was the middle of three children of parents Michael King Sr. and Alberta Williams King.
The precocious student skipped both ninth and 11th grades at Booker T. Washington High School, entering Morehouse College as an undergrad at age 15. In 1948, he earned a sociology degree from the respected HBCU. He went on to attend Crozer Theological Seminary, and later Boston University, where he earned a doctorate in theology.
After completing his formal education, King, Rosa Parks and several fellow activists organized the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first major protest of the civil rights movement.
As King’s notoriety grew, so did the movement, his impassioned speeches appealing to northern Whites, as well as to Christian and American ideals. In 1963, King led the massive March on Washington, where 250,000 demonstrators descended upon the Lincoln Memorial to hear the charismatic leader’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
King did lead the second march but was met with state troopers on the
Edmund Pettus Bridge. Instead of forcing a confrontation, King led the procession of 1,500 to kneel in prayer and then turn back. The largely symbolic moment contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the spring of 1968, King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of a city sanitation workers strike. During this trip, he gave his final speech at the Mason Temple Church, where he prophetically told the crowd, “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.”
The next day, April 4, King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. James Earl Ray, a White escaped convict, pleaded guilty to his murder the following year and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Representative John Conyers was the first to propose making Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday just four days after his assassination. It took 11 more years for the motion to come up for a vote on the House of Representative’s floor. Despite support from President Jimmy Carter and members of Congress, the 1979 bill was five votes short of passing. The King Center, with help from names such as Stevie Wonder and widow Coretta Scott King, led the charge in reintroducing the bill, which passed by 53 votes in 1983.