The Path to MLK Day

TR Staff
Staff Writer

By Ellie Boese
Though Martin Luther King Day is now recognized on the United States’ federal calendar and by offices, schools, businesses, public and private spaces alike, the path to the celebration of this National Holiday has taken more than 30 years.
In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolent fight for Civil Rights, he faced resistance from the U.S. government and many Americans, even receiving a letter from the FBI accusing him of misrepresenting African Americans and leading a fraudulent movement, calling him evil and not-so-subtly suggesting he take his own life to right his wrongs.
The first push for a national MLK day to honor the man who committed a huge chunk of his life resisting oppression and leading the Civil Rights movement came only four days after his assassination in 1968. John Conyers, a Democratic Congressman from Michigan, one of the few black representatives in Congress, and an active member of the Civil Rights movement, took the floor to call for a federal holiday in honor of King. There incredibly heated push-back to his request. His first bill failed, but Conyers persisted for 15 years, gathering co-sponsors which included the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Support for the holiday surged after Stevie Wonder wrote his hit song “Happy Birthday” about King and by 1983, the CBC had collected six million signatures of Americans supporting a federal holiday in honor of the Civil Rights hero.
The bill passed with extraordinary ease then, 78-22, and President Reagan signed the legislation on November 2, 1983. King became the first modern private citizen to be honored with a federal holiday; even so, resistance persisted. Though the first federal MLK holiday was celebrated in 1986, it took until 2000 for every state in the Union to observe it.
In his life, King skipped 9th and 12th grade, entering Morehouse College in Atlanta when he was only 15. He graduated with two bachelor’s degrees, one in sociology and the other in theology. At the age of 26, King earned his doctorate from Boston University in 1955 and was the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize when he was 35 years old.
King skipped ninth and 12th grades in high school and entered Morehouse College at age 15. King gave over 2,500 speeches, traveled more than 6 million miles and wrote five books and countless published articles in his fight for Civil Rights from 1957 until his death in 1968.
Even after his death at 39 years old, King’s name continued to inspire generations of Americans and the global community for his Civil Rights activism and sacrifice for the cause.
In a 1999 Gallup poll, King was voted America’s second most-admired person of the 20th century, only succeeded by Mother Teresa.
Over 900 streets worldwide were named after him, with over 40 US states having at least on MLK-named street, as of 2013. Even on Jerusalem, a street dedicated to MLK is marked with a sign written both in English and Hebrew.
King is also one of only 10 world martyrs of the 20th-century who are depicted in life-size statues at the entrance of Westminster Abbey in London.
Here are a few facts you may not have known about the man honored on Jan. 21:
• Though he was only 39 at the time of his death, autopsy results showed that King had the heart of a 60-year-old, which doctors believed was a result of extreme stress.
• After becoming pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, King’s father changed his name to Martin Luther King, Sr., and when King was 6 years old, his father officially changed his name on his birth certificate from Michael King Jr. to Martin Luther King Jr.
• King and his newlywed wife Coretta spent their wedding night at a Black-owned funeral home after they were rejected by a whites-only hotel.
• Star Trek star Nichelle Nichols, after King stated his admiration for the important representation of positive race relations in the show, stated that King was the reason she opted to stay on the show instead of moving to something new.
• When his grandmother, Jennie, suffered a heart attack and died when King was only 12 years old, he attempted suicide by jumping through his home’s second story window.
In the spirit of bringing more of King’s humanness to the holiday, here was his favorite meal: a notably southern-style meal––a combination plate of fried chicken, black-eyed peas, collard greens and cornbread.
Honoring a man hailed as a hero and one of the most influential people of the 20th century, it’s important to remember he was human, just like all of us. His resistance and inspiration for national and international justice and peace creates a way for us to see what is often considered far-fetched in our own lives: everyone has the capability, perhaps even the responsibility, to make an incredible impact on bettering the communities we live in, our states, our country and our world.