What is Martin Luther King Jr Day and why is it celebrated?

Al Jazeera takes a look at this federal holiday and what it means in the United States.

FILE - In this Aug. 28, 1963, file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses marchers during his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. The U.S. economy “has never worked fairly for Black Americans — or, really, for any American of color,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a speech delivered Monday, Jan. 17, 2022 one of many by national leaders acknowledging unmet needs for racial equality on Martin Luther King Day. (AP Photo, File)
Martin Luther King Jr delivers his I Have a Dream speech during the 1963 March on Washington, an address that is considered one of the greatest in US history [File: AP]

As the United States celebrates Martin Luther King Jr Day on Monday, we take a look at the celebration and its origins:

What is Martin Luther King Jr Day and how did it come to be a holiday?

  • Martin Luther King Jr Day is a federal holiday in the United States that takes place on the third Monday in January. It honours the life and legacy of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Each year, the celebration takes place on the Monday closest to his birthday, which is on January 15. This year, it is being held on January 16.
  • Sunday would have been King’s 94th birthday. He was assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39 in Memphis, Tennessee.
  • In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law, and it was first observed on January 20, 1986. The first time all states observed it was in 2000.
  • Reagan said the holiday was meant to remember King and “the just cause he stood for”. “America is a more democratic nation, a more just nation, a more peaceful nation because Martin Luther King Jr became her pre-eminent non-violent commander,” Reagan said in 1983.
  • According to the White House, only three people in the US have a holiday observed in their honour: Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and King.
  • Banks and stock markets are closed on Monday, and generally, public schools observe the federal holiday too.
President Ronald Reagan, saying America is still not free of the racism battled by Martin Luther King Jr., asked the nation?s youth on Thursday, Jan. 15, 1987 to strive for a land ?free of bigotry, intolerance and discrimination.? The President, in a television speech beamed by cable and satellite to high school students across the country, said King was an inspiration to all Americans, no matter what their race. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)
Reagan, in a televised speech in 1987 beamed by cable and satellite to high school students across the US, said King was an inspiration to all Americans, no matter what their race. [Dennis Cook/AP]

What was King’s legacy?

  • King led a campaign of non-violent protests and civil disobedience in the struggle to end discrimination, including racial segregation, in the US in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • He pushed for social and economic improvements for African Americans while also fighting for legal equality.
  • “King was a critical force in bringing the anti-Black, racist struggles facing Black Americans to the communities, living rooms and dinner tables of white Americans who had long had the privilege of overlooking and denying its existence,” journalist Jenn M Jackson wrote for Al Jazeera in 2021. “He did this while sacrificing his own safety and the safety of his family.”
  • Speaking about his legacy, Taylor Branch, his biographer, told Al Jazeera in 2018: “We were on the mission to redeem America from the triple scourge of racial bigotry, of war and poverty for a largely invisible minority, [and] to have that ambition is just stunning.”
  • Race was at the heart of this struggle, but the impact was also economic. Black people earned far less than white people, and King wanted to highlight that.
  • His long-term goal, according to Branch, was to launch a Poor People’s Campaign, a multiracial effort to eradicate poverty.
  • King led a non-violent movement. His strong beliefs in civil rights and non-violence also made him a fierce opponent of America’s participation in the Vietnam War.
  • King’s ideas and work made him increasingly unpopular during his lifetime. In 1966, 63 percent of Americans had an unfavourable view of King, up from 37 percent in 1963, according to a Gallup poll. Today, he is one of the most respected people in the country.

How is the US marking the holiday this year?

  • The King Center in Atlanta, led by his daughter Bernice King, launched its slate of Martin Luther King Jr Day events on Thursday with youth and adult summits to educate the public on ways to transform unjust systems in the US.
  • In Boston, civic organisations unveiled a 22-foot (6.7-metre) bronze statue honouring King and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
  • According to local media reports, the sculptor Han Willis Thomas found inspiration in a photograph of the civil rights leaders embracing after King learned that he won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
  • President Joe Biden became the first sitting US president to speak at a Sunday service in the civil rights leader’s church in Atlanta. During his speech, he asked Americans to look at King’s life for lessons on extremism and injustice.
President Joe Biden, joined by Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., left, and Rev. Chelsea D. Waite, right, speaks at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023, during a service honoring Martin Luther King Jr. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Biden speaks at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King was pastor, during a service honouring the civil rights leader on January 15, 2023 [Carolyn Kaster/AP]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies