On Monday, January 15, Americans will celebrate the life and achievements of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK). Born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929, the activist was originally named Michael King after his father, a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. However, after a trip to Europe in 1934, King Sr. changed both his and his son’s name to Martin Luther in honor of the German theologian who initiated the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.
MLK’s first significant encounter with racial segregation came at the age of six when he and his best friend, who happened to be white, were forced to attend different elementary schools. As he grew up, MLK realized that black and white people led disparate lives – they ate at different restaurants, went to different schools, and even sat in separate areas when traveling on buses and trains.
In 1952, while pursuing his doctorate at Boston University, MLK met an attractive singer named Coretta Scott. Within an hour into their first meeting, the then 23-year old told Scott, “We ought to get married someday.” His wish was realized on June 18, 1953, and, soon after, in 1954, MLK accepted a job as the twentieth pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Though he encouraged members of his congregation to exercise their civil rights by registering to vote and join the NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, the pastor kept a relatively low profile. However, that changed on December 1, 1955, when fellow activist Rosa Parks was arrested and found guilty for refusing to vacate her bus seat for a white passenger. To protest against the injustice, a group of civil rights leaders led by MLK called for a citywide bus boycott that lasted 381 days! On December 20, 1956, the United States Supreme Court repealed the transportation segregation law, giving the activists their first win.
Encouraged by the success, MLK spent the next decade traveling around the country inspiring Americans to fight against all kinds of segregation through non-violent sit-ins, boycotts, and marches. During this time, the superb orator delivered numerous inspiring speeches, the most memorable of which was given on August 28th, 1963.
The chain of events leading to the civil rights leader's oft-quoted 'I have a dream' speech started with President John F. Kennedy’s June 1963 request to the US Congress to pass a law allowing all Americans equal access to public places. To convince legislators to approve the measure, civil rights leaders asked people to show their support by coming to Washington D.C. for a peaceful march. Over a quarter million citizens from around the country flew, drove, rode buses, and even walked to participate in what is now called the March on Washington! It was on this day, while standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, that MLK shared his dream of living in a country where everyone was treated equally.
The protest and his powerful message did not go unnoticed. On July 2, US lawmakers passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning discrimination in employment and public accommodations based on "race, color, religion, or national origin." That same year, MLK became the youngest man, and only the second African American, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
The civil rights leader’s tireless quest for equality also led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which restored and protected everyone’s right to vote, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which banned housing discrimination for sales or rentals. Unfortunately, MLK who was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, did not live long enough to see the impact of the changes he had helped instigate.
Today, almost 50 years after his death, the heroic activist’s legacy is celebrated all over the country with parades and community programs. It is primarily due to his hard work and “radical” vision of equality that we all have the opportunity to pursue our dreams.