skip to main content
Latest Blog: It's Martin Luther King Day

Send us your Stories

We love to hear news from schools on global learning. Email us at:

Latest Blog: It's Martin Luther King Day

15 January, 2021

It took almost fifteen years after the assination of Martin Luther King to approve a holiday in his honour. But in 1983, King’s birthday was officially marked as a national day of leave that would be celebrated by all fifty US states. Martin Luther King (MLK) Day is the only federal holiday designated as a ‘national day of service’ and encourages American citizens to volunteer to improve and support their local communities.

Born on 15 January 1929, Martin Luther King Jr was the son of Michael King, an African American Baptist Pastor and an early figure in the Civil Rights Movement. Michael King became a preacher after being inspired by others who were bold enough to speak out against racial equality.

He began a two year university course, driven by his Christian beliefs, and boarded with Reverend Williams, a local pastor. Soon after, he began courting Alberta Williams, the Reverend’s daughter who he later went on to marry on Thanksgiving Day in 1926. They produced three children, with Martin Luther King being the middle child.

MLK was brought up in a particularly religious household where the bible took centre stage. By the age of five, through citing biblical passages, combined with his love of words from devouring the dictionary, he was more than equipped to be able to handle himself and express his thoughts and feelings independently; a much needed attribute at a time where black citizens were often the subject of racial abuse and segregation.

Throughout his childhood, King was witness to much of this racial discrimination. He grew up observing his father organise rallies, such as the one held in Atlanta in 1936, where his father led African Americans in a Civil Rights stand-off to protest against voting rights. King would have been just seven years old at the time.   

When the bill to offically observe Martin Luther King Day was first put to the US House of Representatives in 1979, it fell five votes short. Primarily down to opposition arguments that a further paid holiday would be too costly and that only two other individuals had had US days that were held in honour of them: Christopher Columbus and George Washington. As King was neither officially in office - and had been labelled a ‘communist’ with ‘action-orientated Marxism’ by a number of key senators - there was a lot of hesitation by Ronald Reagan, US President at the time, when it came to passing the bill.

However, on 2 November 1983, President Reagan signed off the official bill that would then go on to honour Martin Luther King by creating a federal holiday in his memory, making him only the third person in US history to have a day dedicated to his works. The holiday, observed for the first time on 20 January 1986, falls yearly and on the third Monday in January.

All fifty states signed up but New Hampshire was the last state to concede in effecting the holiday. They celebrated it for the very first time in the year 2000.

Martin Luther King was a leader, a risk taker and wished for ‘greatness among all men'. He stood for equity and a riddance to discrimination. He also helped organize the 1963 March on Washington (watch more about the march) where he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He was known for delivering non-violent protests, opposing poverty, capitalism and the Vietnam war.

On 14 October 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for ‘combating racial equality’ through ‘non-violent resistance’ and in 1968, when planning the ‘Poor People’s Campaign’, he was tragically assassinated on 4 April in Memphis, Tennessee as he stood on his own balcony. He died at just thirty nine years of age.  

But Martin Luther King left behind a legacy. Not just in being awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, but in initiating the Civil Rights Act of 1964; a law that made it illegal to treat people any differently because of the colour of their skin. He, along with the Civil Rights Act, gave black people the right to vote – although many US states had registration requirements that often made this extremely difficult (that he later went on to revoke). He showed demonstrable bravery and courage, stood for peaceful protesting and saw visions that he later went on to deliver. Equality and racial reconciliation was his ultimate goal.

But while the first Emancipation Proclomation had put an end to legal slavery, a second emancipation that erradicated segregation was long overdue.

It came in the form of the Second Emancipation Proclamation which officially put an end to racial segregation. King's timing in approaching Kennedy for a review of Lincoln’s first Emancipation Proclamation came one hundred years after slavery was legitimately abolished.

On November 20 1962, Kennedy issued an Executive Order prohibiting racial discrimination. He also introduced an omnibus Civil Rights bill to Congress after his civil rights address on national television and radio on June 11 1963. The demands of the Second Emancipation, however, were not filled until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act that firmly and finally outlawed segregation.

King's innate drive for equality and an adjusted society continues on through his bloodline. In particular his nine year old granddaughter Yolanda who spoke out against gun laws in the US at a Gun Control Rally in March 2018, proving that Martin Luther King's dream really does live on.

And will for some time to come. 

Resources to Support Classroom Practice and a Whole School Approach

Global Learning is supported by a wide range of organisations and initiatives:

Get updates from Global Learning Schools NI straight to your inbox!