In 1986, our country celebrated the first Martin Luther King Jr. day. It all began just four days after King’s April 4, 1968 assassination when U.S. rep. John Conyers Jr., D-MI, first submitted legislation to commemorate the slain civil rights leader’s Jan. 15th birthday. Then in 1970 Congress received petitions with more than six million signatures in favor of the act. Finally, in November 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Act.
Christopher Columbus and George Washington are the only other individuals having a national holiday in their honor. Some critics have questioned why one national leader, regardless of how esteemed, should have his birthday celebrated claiming there were presidents and statesmen who also deserve recognition.
Twenty years ago, Seattle Times reporter Paul Andrews wrote, “The odds against the new holiday were imposing. The arguments opposing it – cost to taxpayers, singling him out over others – have been used for decades to resist creation of any new holiday.” Still, there are imposing reasons for it. The late minister appears not to have been motivated by political strategy or notoriety, but was a nonviolent warrior championing the rights of all men. Born Jan. 15, 1929, in segregated Atlanta to a pastor and a former schoolteacher, King later followed his father’s professional footsteps.
He enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary after earning his Bachelor’s degree in 1948 from Morehouse College in Atlanta. By 1955, he had completed his doctoral dissertation. He and his wife, Coretta Scott King moved to Montgomery, AL, to begin a pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. It was there that King’s fight for civil rights began when he mobilized the black community during a 382 day boycott of the Montgomery bus lines. It was sparked by an incident when a young African American woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. At first, the new pastor was reluctant to get involved, but eventually he accepted leadership of the movement.
His leadership was based on “a doctrine of nonviolent protest taking the Christian principle of turning the other cheek out of the pulpit and onto the street,” according to a 1997 A&E television documentary. King said, “We strive to advocate nonviolence and passive resistance and still determine to use the weapon of love.”
Later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public transportation was unconstitutional. But there had already been a cost to King. He had to overcome arrest, violent harassment, and the bombing of his home. He also began receiving “up to 50 letters or phone calls a day, that he should leave town or face death,” according to King biographer David Garrow. He said, “King was resigned to the fact that his leadership role inevitably meant that sooner or later he would be killed.” King persevered in his nonviolent battle against segregation, despite the fact that the violent persecution against him never ceased. He was stabbed in New York in 1958. He was also jailed in a state penitentiary in the early 1960s for sitting at an Atlanta lunch counter that was for whites’ only.
In 1965, there was the “Selma” movement as King Jr. led the cause of gaining equal voting rights, despite documented violence. The recently released movie has been highly debated for historical inaccuracy regarding the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson. Still, it is not a documentary, but an important Hollywood remembrance of a bloody 50-year-old struggle. Perhaps though, King Jr. is best known for the glorious moment in 1963 when he spoke to a crowd of 250,000 people gathered for the March in Washington, which was organized to support the Civil Rights Bill.
Yet he didn’t want to be remembered for earthly accolades. He told this to the congregation of Ebenezer Baptist Church two months prior to his assassination. That day, King spoke about the kind of funeral he would like to have, wanting there to be no mention of his 1964 Nobel Peace or countless other awards. Rather, he asked that someone say, “Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others.”
MLK Jr. was a world changer, but not a perfect man. He was a flawed human being like all of us, who had a dream and followed it, despite the weighty cost. His own Christian theology would assert that he is “free at last,” living in the “promised land.”
Christina Ryan Claypool is an Amy-award winning freelance journalist and inspirational speaker. Contact through her Website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com