What is MLK day all about?

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On the third week of January, most students are ecstatic to have a three-day weekend. Some students love sleeping in on that Monday, spending the day hanging out with friends, or catching up on neglected homework. Oftentimes, students forget about the significance of this federal holiday known as Martin Luther King Jr. Day that is meant to commemorate the civil rights activist.  

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 and attended segregated public schools in Georgia, graduating from Morehouse College in 1948 and later receiving his doctorate from Boston University.  

The King family moved to Montgomery, Alabama at the pinnacle of the civil rights movement—when the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case ruled for the integration of schools across the country. When activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus, her actions sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott led by King.  

Because of these activists’ efforts, the Supreme Court ruled segregation on public buses unconstitutional in 1956. Influenced by activist Mahatma Gandhi, King gained a spotlight in the civil rights movement at this time. In fact, King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group that advocated for peaceful protests to achieve racial equality.  

In the years that followed, King gave numerous speeches and organized several mass demonstrations, reflecting his core belief in nonviolent protests. Perhaps his most famous speech is “I Have a Dream,” given at the March on Washington in 1963. More than a quarter million people gathered to demand equal rights for all.  

Because of these efforts, the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. That same year, King received the Nobel Peace Prize—the youngest person to receive the award at that time.  

King broadened the scope of his activism by undertaking the Poor People’s Campaign in which he advocated for more opportunities for the poor, such as a fair minimum wage and insurance benefits. However, this developing movement came to an abrupt halt when King was assassinated in April, 1968.  

Just four days after his assassination, John Conyers, a Democratic Congressman who was a part of the civil rights movement, proposed that there be a federal holiday in honor of King’s accomplishments. Together with the Congressional Black Caucus, they fought for the creation of this holiday and collected 6 million signatures in support of their cause. 

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating this federal holiday. However, many states refused to observe this day, with New Hampshire being the last state to recognize the holiday. Even today, there are still a select few that have attempted to mitigate King’s efforts. For instance, some southern states such as Alabama use this day to honor the Confederate general Robert E. Lee as well as King.  

When the country was in the midst of civil unrest, activists took it upon themselves to bring upon societal change, with Martin Luther King Jr. being a prominent figure in shaping legislation and the world we live in today. Despite being arrested almost 30 times, despite being bombed, despite being criticized by fellow activists, and despite being a target for white supremacists in general—King took great strides in achieving racial equality. For that reason, the United States honors this influential leader.