Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a national holiday honoring the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our country’s most well-known and respected civil rights, peace and social justice activist and one of the most revered American orators.
While Dr. King’s struggles for justice for Black people are more easily recognized, his efforts—combined with those of nameless Black men and women—led to laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that protect the civil rights of all Americans, regardless of color.
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Born on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King, Jr. walked in the shoes of his father and grandfather. Both were pastors of the influential and historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta’s Black community as well as social advocates who fought for the freedom and equality of Black people.
Dr. King came from the longstanding black tradition of “uplift” that called upon its more educated and privileged members to act as articulate kinsmen for the less educated and deeply oppressed.
Using the power of the pulpit and drawing on the religious and social gospel traditions and stylings of the Black church, Dr. King added his sharp mind, eloquence, wit, compassion and passion to the struggle for justice.
Dr. King rose quickly to leadership in the Civil Rights movement because the movement grew up within the walls of Black churches, which were vital to its success.
Always relative safe havens for Black people, including those who could lose jobs and homes for even taking part in the struggle, Black churches hosted mass community meetings, served as gathering points for rallies and marches, were food and resting places, and offered essential emotional, physical, moral and spiritual support.
The Black church, led by Black ministers and organized by thousands of Black women, was the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. And Dr. King emerged as its “drum major for justice.”
Influenced by the Black social gospel of his father and grandfather as well as writings by Gandhi and other theological teachings, Dr. King famously believed in nonviolent direct actions to end racial segregation and inequality. These were methods of protest and resistance like marches, demonstrations and strikes during which Black protestors and their white allies would refuse to engage in the considerable violence that came from counter-demonstrators.
King’s dedication to nonviolence was remarkable and deeply personal. He himself had been beaten, stabbed, handled brutally during arrests and his home was bombed while his wife and young child were inside.
But Dr. King believed fiercely that love was the light of freedom—that the only way to respond to injustice and hatred was with love.
And he helped Black people who had been struggling for freedom since the end of slavery find their own light. Dr. King had to convince those who had faced violence and brutality for simply wanting to be free to not fight back, to put away the guns they used for self-protection and show the world with him that love was the better way.
By doing this, Dr. King was able to convince the larger world that racism and racial segregation—which had always been understood as a natural racial system—were wrong, moral failures and, in the words of the church, sins.
So as Dr. King stood in the stifling heat of that August day in 1963 at the Washington March for Jobs and Freedom, looking across the pond at the Lincoln Memorial, listening to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson urge him to tell the world about his dream, the world was finally ready to hear him.
Each year on the third Monday in January, we observe Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and remember and emulate his commitment to love, peace, freedom, justice and equality. It’s the only federal holiday to honor a Black person—and a day to recognize the sacrifices of the past and the work of equality that must still be done.
Banks, federal offices, schools and most work places are closed when we observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. But over time, it has evolved from a day people take off work into a Day of Service.
The Day of Service encourages all Americans to raise awareness of Dr. King’s ideals and the need to keep working for what he believed in. It’s a day to improve our communities by offering help, caring and support to neighbors and anyone in need.
Dr. King believed all human beings have the potential for greatness found in serving someone else. That can mean finding volunteer opportunities in your communities that will not only help solve problems but build connections between people of all races.
Dr. King saw this as an ideal way to move closer to what he called “the Beloved Community”: the intentional creation of a society where all people live together with respect for one another and in full human dignity.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day offers so many ways to honor Dr. King and what he stood for.
For instance, because he believed so strongly in a world where everyone is treated with kindness, compassion, respect and empathy no matter the color of their skin, sexual orientation or their station in life, you can:
- Intentionally get out of your comfort zone by reaching out to and connecting with people from other communities.
- Visit a church where people are of another race or patronize a Black business you might ordinarily pass by.
- Invite a co-worker who is different from you, but who you’ve always wanted to know better, to a Zoom coffee or lunch.
Make the day about learning more about Dr. King and his life with your family. Everyone knows of his beautiful “I Have a Dream Speech.” You can also:
- Read or listen to some of his other powerful writings like “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or his “This American Dream” sermon.
- Introduce Dr. King to the little ones in your life in age-appropriate ways: Read one of the many wonderful children’s books about his life or talk to them about how important it is that everybody is treated equally and how powerful it can be to stand up when they see someone being treated badly.
- Sing and dance with your kids to the wonderful Stevie Wonder song “Happy Birthday to You” about celebrating Dr. King’s birthday.
- Watch a movie, like Selma, with your teens to help them understand the history of the Black struggle that Dr. King was such an important part of. Talk with them about what race, justice, peace and equality mean to them.
- Share stories. Maybe younger members of the family would like to hear from elders about what they remember of Dr. King and how he and others changed things. Talk about how your family will participate in the work there’s left to do until everyone is equal.
- Participate in Martin Luther King, Jr. Day library events and neighborhood talks by Zoom or in socially distanced outdoor spaces.
You can also share acts of caring with your friends and neighbors:
- Get creative! Use your art to create a statement about unity, caring and standing against hatred of each other.
- Practice gratitude. Send cards or notes to people in your community who are a loving presence or who have made a positive change. You could say things like, “When I think of Dr. King’s message of love, kindness and compassion, I realize that this is exactly how you live.” Or, “When I think of what a good person you are and how many good things you do for everyone around you, I feel the spirit of Dr. King’s dream coming to life.”
- Attend or help to plan Martin Luther King, Jr. Day events in local Black communities like tree plantings or cleanup and improvement projects that can be done safely.
- Serve those in need by volunteering in a soup kitchen, delivering food to people who are shut in, driving people without transportation to food pantries or offering to pay bus, cab or Uber fare.
- Think beyond the day and offer to pay for transportation to someone’s next doctor’s appointment.
- Volunteer time at established charities like Habitat for Humanity or Ronald McDonald House.
- Volunteer or donate to organizations that fight for racial justice, equality and peace like the NAACP, Urban League, League of Women Voters, Kids for Peace or memorial funds like the George Floyd Memorial Fund or the Justice for Breonna Taylor Fund.
- Visit MLKDay.gov to find a volunteer opportunity near you.
One of the very best ways to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is to keep faith in Dr. King’s vision every day of the year. Become a part of his practice of kindness, love and respect and stand up for justice and equality. Make his dream our reality through your actions and commitment.