Every year on the third Monday of January, Americans celebrate the life and legacy of the extraordinary Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK). It is thanks to the vision and courage of this tireless clergyman turned civil rights activist that America is today a nation where everyone has equal rights, regardless of race, color, creed, or national origin.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929, MLK, grew up in an environment where race discrimination was a way of life. His first exposure to segregation came at the age of six when he realized that he could not attend the same school as his best friend who happened to be white. Growing up, MLK encountered similar discrimination in restaurants and on public buses and trains. But like everyone else in Atlanta, he learned to accept it.
Things changed in the summer of 1944 when MLK went to work in the tobacco fields in Harford, Connecticut. In a letter to his father, the then 15-year-old expressed his astonishment saying "After we passed Washington there was no discrimination at all. The white people here are very nice. We go to any place we want to and sit anywhere we want to.” The young boy soon realized that this was a way of life not just in Connecticut and Washington, but across all the Northern U.S. States. Though it took a few years before he began the battle to bring similar equality to the Southern States, the seeds had been planted.
MLK followed his father's footsteps and became a clergyman. In 1954, the now ordained Minister faced a life-altering decision. He could either become pastor at a church in Montgomery, Alabama, where racial discrimination was a way of life or move to the more progressive northern states of New York or Massachusetts. Fortunately, for us, MLK and his wife Coretta, chose Alabama.
As pastor, he encouraged the residents to register to vote and join the NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization. However, MLK did not begin actively fighting against racial discrimination until December 1955 when an activist by the name of Rosa Parks was jailed for refusing to vacate her seat on a public bus to a white passenger.
Angry at the injustice, MLK asked the African American residents of Montgomery to boycott public buses and trains. This was no easy request given that the locals depended on public transportation to get to work every day. But they accepted the challenge not just for a day or month, but an entire year! Soon residents of other states with similar laws joined in, leading to the first ever concerted effort against racial discrimination. It took a full year, but in 1956, the Supreme Court of the United States finally passed legislation to abolish segregation on public transportation.
But MLK was just getting started. The social activist now wanted to end segregation and racial discrimination altogether. He spent the next decade asking Americans to speak up against the injustice in a non-violent manner with sit-ins, boycotts, and marches. During the time, he gave numerous inspiring speeches, the most memorable of which was delivered on August 28, 1963.
The events that lead to the MLK's famous 'I have a dream' address began in June after President John F. Kennedy asked the U.S. Congress to approve a civil rights bill that would give all Americans equal access to public places. To try to convince government officials, MLK, and other civil rights leaders called upon Americans to show their support for the bill by staging a peaceful rally in Washington DC.
To their surprise and delight over 200,000 citizens from across the country flew, drove, rode buses and even walked, to participate in what became known as the March on Washington. It was on this day that MLK stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and talked about his dream of living in a country where everyone was treated equally. The Civil Rights Act, which was passed on July 2, 1964, was the first significant victory in the activist's mission to achieve complete legal equality for all.
relentless drive to end segregation and racial discrimination did not go unnoticed. In October 1964, the 35-year-old civil rights leader was awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. He was and remained the youngest recipient until Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai won the award in 2014.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 that allowed African Americans to cast votes was another step in the right direction. The 1968 Fair Housing Act that prohibited any discrimination in the sale, rental or financing of property sealed the deal. Finally, all Americans had equal rights. Unfortunately, MLK, who was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee earlier that year did not get to see his dream come true.
Today, thanks to this incredible man's courage and effort, America is a country where we all enjoy the same opportunities. It is now up to us to protect MLK's legacy for future generations by standing up against injustices and helping those in need. As you celebrate the holiday on Monday, January 18, be sure to reflect upon what you can do to make a difference and create your own legacy.