Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 94 on Jan. 15. On Monday, Jan. 16 the nation will observe MLK Day in his honor.
We will never know what more he may have accomplished, but without him, civil rights in this country and around the world would be far behind where it is today.
In 1964 he became one of the youngest people to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s model of nonviolent resistance, King believed that peaceful protest for civil rights would lead to sympathetic media coverage and public opinion. His instincts proved correct. National outrage grew at the televised coverage of violent attacks against peaceful protestors.
In his most well-known speech “I have a Dream,” King encouraged protestors to continue remaining peaceful and remember how the freedom of humankind is entangled: “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
After a long, brutal journey, the movement ultimately achieved victories with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
The Civil Rights Act ended the separation of drinking fountains, bathrooms and seating. It prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities and made employment discrimination illegal. It was the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. The Voting Rights Act outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states after the Civil War, including literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting.
On April 4, 1968, while visiting Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, King was assassinated by James Earl Ray. A National Day of Mourning was held on April 7.
It wasn’t until 1983, however, that Congress declared Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a federal holiday. And it was not without controversy. Several states chose to combine the commemoration of King’s birthday with other observances. Alabama, Arkansas (until 2017), Mississippi and Virginia, for example, celebrated a combination of “Robert E. Lee/or Jackson/Martin Luther King Birthday.” Arizona, Idaho, and Wyoming combined it with a Civil Rights/Human Rights or Equality day.
In 1986, King’s wife Coretta Scott King, gained congressional approval to establish a King Federal Holiday Commission to plan annual celebrations that would encourage “Americans to reflect on the principles of racial equality and nonviolent social change espoused by Dr. King.”
Today it is one of two federal holidays linked with a National Day of Service. The other is Sept. 11.
King’s message spread well beyond the United States and many countries give their own tributes. In Canada, the City of Toronto has officially recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day since 2005.
In Israel, during a visit by a U.S. naval fleet in 1984, Navy chaplain Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff conducted the first Israeli presidential ceremony in commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, held in the President’s Residence, Jerusalem. Aura Herzog, the wife of Israel’s then-President Chaim Herzog, noted that she was especially proud to host this special event because Israel had a national forest in honor of King and that Israel and King shared the idea of “dreams.”
In Japan, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed in the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba held a special banquet at the mayor’s office to unify his city’s call for peace with King’s message of human rights.
In the Netherlands, a Dr. Martin Luther King Tribute and Dinner has been held in Wassenaar for the past 35 years,. It includes young people and veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. The dinner typically ends with everyone holding hands in a circle and singing “We Shall Overcome.”
In the United States, while progress has been made for civil rights, police brutality, economic barriers and general systemic racism continue. King’s words still ring true: “So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
We will continue to rise up to achieve his dream.