Martin Luther King Jr Day 2022: Who was the civil rights leader and how is the holiday celebrated?

The civil rights activist died in 1968

Samuel Osborne
Monday 17 January 2022 13:42
Martin Luther King Jr's iconic I Have A Dream speech

Each year Americans celebrate the life of the US civil rights movement’s best-known spokesman and leader on Martin Luther King Jr Day.

The movement pioneered by Martin Luther King pressured the American government to end legalised segregation in the United States.

Who was Martin Luther King Jr and why is he so important?

Born in 1929, Martin Luther King Jr was a Baptist minister best known for using the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience to combat racial inequality.

Mr King led the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person.

He also helped organise the March on Washington in 1963, where he delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech he is best known for.

Watch: Martin Luther King’s iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech

In 1964, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his civil rights work.

Towards the end of his life, he expanded his campaigning to include opposition to poverty and the Vietnam War.

Mr King was assassinated by James Earl Ray on 4 April, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, while he was planning a national occupation of Washington DC.

News of his death was followed by riots in many US cities.

Who commemorates Martin Luther King’s memory and since when?

Martin Luther King Jr Day is a paid federal holiday in the US, meaning civil servants and many school pupils are given the day off.

The day is observed on the third Monday of January each year, the day closest to his birthday on 15 January. This year, it will be held on Monday 17 January.

In 1968, Congress was presented with a petition signed by more than three million people which called for the Mr King’s birthday to be commemorated.

However, Republicans initially resisted the move, arguing Mr King had ties to communism and an “inappropriate” sexual past they felt the government should not honour.

But in 1983, Ronald Reagan, the US President, signed Martin Luther King Jr Day into law as an official public holiday and it was first observed three years later.

Outside of the US, it is observed in Hiroshima, Japan, with a special banquet at the mayor’s office, and Toronto, Canada, which officially recognised Martin Luther King Jr Day, though not as a paid holiday.

How is Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrated?

Many Americans use the day as an opportunity to learn about Mr King’s life and achievements.

Others spend the day volunteering for a cause they think Mr King would have supported.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris began commemorations early this year by touring Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church - where Mr King was a pastor until his death - and laying a wreath at the crypt where he and his wife are buried on 11 January.

The pair were joined by two of the civil rights icon’s children, Dr Bernice King and Martin Luther King III, and met privately with the family beforehand.

After the meeting, Mr Biden and Ms Harris gave remarks about the importance of passing new federal voting rights legislation.

The family is slated to lead a march demanding action on that legislation on the holiday itself.

Mr King III, chairman of the Drum Major Institute, a nonprofit founded by his father, told the Washington Post: “MLK Day has always been a day on, not off. When we call for ‘no celebration without legislation,’ we’re not urging Americans not to honor this day — we’re asking people to honor Dr. King through action to protect the right to vote.

“We’re directly calling on Congress not to pay lip service to my father’s ideals without doing the very thing that would protect his legacy: pass voting rights legislation.”

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