Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK), whose life and legacy is celebrated annually on the third Monday of January, was an extraordinary man. It is thanks to the vision, courage, and leadership of the clergyman-turned-civil-rights-activist that all Americans are granted equal rights, regardless of race, color, religion, or national origin.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929, MLK grew up in a world where segregation was a way of life. It was only in the summer of 1944, when he went to work in the tobacco fields in Hartford, Connecticut, that he realized how different life was in the northern states. The 15-year-old expressed his astonishment in a letter to his father, 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.” Though it was a few years before MLK began the fight to bring similar equality to the southern states, the seed had been planted.
In 1954, MLK, now an ordained minister, had the option to become the pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama, where racial discrimination was prevalent, or to accept a similar position in the more progressive states of New York or Massachusetts. Fortunately for Americans, MLK, and his wife Coretta, chose Alabama. As the pastor, he encouraged Montgomery’s African American residents to register to vote and join the NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization.
MLK's fight to end racial discrimination began in December 1955, when civil rights activist Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Angered by the injustice, MLK asked the city’s African American residents to boycott public buses and trains. Despite having no other mode of transport to get to work, the locals stepped up to the challenge – not for a day or month, but an entire year! As news of the resistance spread, African American residents from the other southern states joined in the protest as well. The first-ever concerted effort to fight racial discrimination caught the nation’s attention, and in 1956, the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public transportation was illegal.
Though it was a step in the right direction, MLK was determined to end segregation and racial discrimination altogether. The social activist took to the road, asking Americans throughout the country to protest the injustices in a non-violent manner, with sit-ins, boycotts, and marches. Over the decade, he gave numerous inspiring speeches, the most memorable of which is the oft-quoted 'I Have A Dream' address.
The events leading to the famous speech began in June 1963, when President John F. Kennedy asked the US Congress to approve a bill that would give all Americans equal access to public places. To try to convince government officials to sign it into law, civil rights leaders called upon Americans to stage a peaceful rally in Washington DC. Over 200,000 residents from across the country heeded their call and arrived at the capital on August 28th, 1963 to participate in what later became known as the March on Washington. On this day, MLK, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, revealed his dream of living in a country where everyone was treated equally.
The Civil Rights Act, passed on July 2, 1964, was the first significant victory in the activist’s mission to achieve equality for all Americans. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which allows African Americans to cast votes, was another step in the right direction. The 1968 Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of property, sealed the deal. Finally, all Americans had equal rights. Unfortunately, MLK did not live long enough to see his dream realized. The 39-year-old was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers’ strike.
Today, thanks to MLK’s courage and efforts, all Americans have the opportunity to pursue their dreams. It is now up to all of us, both young and old, 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 21, be sure to reflect upon what you can do to make a difference and create your own legacy.
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!