Publication date January 16, 2024

Why do we Celebrate Martin Luther King Day? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

School's out, there's no homework, and maybe you're digging into a plate of waffles at a family brunch. But aside from this fun, a question might pop into your head: why exactly do we celebrate Martin Luther King Day? Or why there's an entire holiday devoted to one man?

I have a dream

Source: Time and Date

Sure, he's that guy on the five-dollar bill and the one whose birthday gets us a day off (yay!). But beyond the holiday perks, Dr. King was a real-life superhero whose dedication to equality shook the world. His booming voice roared against injustice, and his peaceful methods paved the way for a brighter future for everyone.

Today, Dr. King’s contributions are pretty undeniable. We hear about him in classrooms and see his image everywhere. But it wasn't always sunshine and syrup. The road to establishing this national holiday was a bumpy one, filled with resistance and struggle.

In this article we’ll dive into the fascinating history of Martin Luther King Day, exploring how a dream transformed into a reality, and why one man's message continues to inspire generations. 

Why not start with a few lines that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Who was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Dr. Martin Luther is mostly known for his leadership during the American civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s. From 1955 to 1968, He led several efforts to end Jim Crow laws and other types of systemic racism that hindered the mobility of people of color in the US. From sit-ins to marches, Dr. King championed displays that combined nonviolence with direct action.

Dr. Martin Luther King

Source: Aljazeera

His well-known “I Have a Dream” speech from the 1963 March on Washington is one of the most celebrated speeches. In this speech, Dr. King picturized a world with equal justice for all people under the law. For his demonstration or dedication to justice and equal rights, Dr. King went on to earn a Nobel Peace Prize and see the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. 

Towards the end of his life, Dr. King’s contribution highlighted the importance of economic justice in the fight for equality and racial liberation. Sadly, in April 1968, He was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was supporting Memphis sanitation workers in their strike for union recognition, better safety standards, and liveable wages.

During Dr. King’s funeral, a tape recording was played in which he spoke of how he wanted to be remembered after his death: “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.”

How did MLK Day become a holiday?

Undoubtedly, Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most decorated civil rights icons in American history. But what we don’t know is that it took more than a decade after his assassination for the country to celebrate him with a national holiday. 

Martin Luther King Day is the second federal holiday of every calendar year (after New Year’s Day). The holiday represents King’s birthday, which was on January 15, 1929. While MLK Jr. Day fell on King’s real birthday this year, that’s not always the case. Instead, the King Holiday Bill designated the third Monday of every January as MLK Jr. Day. 

The King Holiday Bill

Source: Blackpast

The holiday bill was first introduced on April 8, 1968, four days after King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, according to the National Museum of African American History & Culture.  

The King Holiday Bill was a bipartisan measure funded by Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Republican Sen.Edward Brooke of Massachusetts.

The House of Representatives was the first voted on the King Holiday Bill in 1979, 11 years after it was introduced. However, it didn’t pass until four years later. The King Holiday bill’s passage was really a hard-won fight and didn’t just involve lawmakers. The iconic singer Stevie Wonder even dedicated the song “Happy Birthday" to King in 1981, singing, "There ought to be a time that we can set aside to show just how much we love you."

Around two years later, US President Ronald Reagan signed the measure into law in 1983 total of 15 years after it was first introduced. According to the National Museum of African American History & Culture, it later took nearly two more decades for all 50 states to spot the day, 

After decades of battles, finally, in 1986, it was the first time that Martin Luther King Jr. Day was officially celebrated, according to Time. You will be surprised to know that at this time, only 27 states and Washington, DC become part of this celebration and it took another 14 years for all states to observe it. In 2000, South Carolina became the last state to officially designate Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday. 

Why does it matter?

But why one should celebrate MLK Day and how does it matter? You may have some similar questions, so celebrating Martin Luther King Day matters because it recognizes Dr. King’s legacy of service while inspiring us to serve in our own ways. 

There are a lot of things that Dr. King highlighted and fought for during his lifetime including racial justice, economic equality, affordable housing, labor rights, etc. These are issues we’re still trying to figure out today. 

For example, the protests of this past summer followed in the footsteps of the civil rights movement and leaders like Dr. King. The fight for justice and equality is ongoing, and we can use MLK Day to reflect on the work that Dr. King started and take responsibility for the work we still have left to do. 

The National Constitution Center describes it pretty well with the following quote:

“Today, the King holiday serves multiple purposes: It honors the total legacy of King; focuses on the issue of civil rights; highlights the use of nonviolence to promote change; and calls people into public service.”

How can I celebrate MLK Day?

Now that you know the history behind MLK Day, you may be wondering what things we can do or how can we celebrate this day. While Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day offers us a wonderful opportunity to talk about peace, cooperation, acceptance, and caring for others, here are some fun ideas you can consider: 

1. Read Books

We all know how valuable books can be for us. When it comes to MLK Day, reading books can be a magnificent way to introduce important values to to you and your child and can be used as a guide to engage in meaningful conversations about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work, life, and legacy.

Here are a few books we selected that we feel celebrate and honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s important legacy:

  • My First Biography: Martin Luther King, Jr. by Marion Dane Bauer
  • The Story of Martin Luther King Jr. by Johnny Ray Moore
  • Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport
  • March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World by Christine King Farris
  • I Have a Dream by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Kadir Nelson

2. Watch a Video 

You can learn more about Dr. King by watching videos online. There are many videos on the Internet about him. Then reflect on the positive impact he made through his positive actions.

MLK Day Special: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in His Own Words

3. Volunteer 

Volunteering can be a great idea to promote the idea of equality, and can demonstrate the importance of helping others, and can help set the stage for a lifetime of supporting others. On the Internet, you will discover a wide variety of volunteer projects you and your family can do together to share kindness and help your local community. 

4. Share Your Dreams with the “I Have a Dream” Activity.

After reading Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” book, ask your child to share his dreams and discuss ways that your family can follow the example of Dr. King and make the world actually a better place. 

5. Participate in Community Events

Look for community events that your local community will host to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You can also participate in online community events to celebrate the day virtually. Participating in community events will help you and your family members not only learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but will inspire you to help others.

Indeed, after learning about him, Dr. King was one of the bravest men in America. Martin Luther King Day isn't just a day off school. It's an opportunity for us to reflect on the echoes of a man who dared to dream of a world without the stain of racism and then dedicated his life to making it a reality. 

But more than the lessons in history books, MLK Day whispers a challenge to the next generation. It begs us to ask: What will our non-violent disputes be? How will we fight for the rights of others, not just ourselves? And how will we keep Dr. King's dream alive, not just today, but every single day? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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