The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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MLK Day has been designated as a national day of service (Credit: National Park Service/ CC BY 2.0/ Wikimedia Commons)

Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) was one of America's most influential civil rights movement leaders. His life and achievements are celebrated annually on the third Monday of January. The federal holiday, which will be observed on January 16 this year, is designated as a National Day of Service. Americans are encouraged to spend the holiday volunteering to improve their communities.

MLK was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929. He grew up in a world where Blacks and Whites led disparate lives. They went to different schools, ate at different restaurants, and even sat in specially assigned seats on buses and trains. The young boy believed segregation was a way of life across the country. He learned to accept it.

That changed in 1944 when he went to work in the tobacco fields in Hartford, Connecticut. In a letter to his father, the then-15-year-old MLK said, "After we passed Washington, there was no discrimination. The white people here are very nice. We go to any place we want to and sit anywhere we want to."

It was a few years before MLK began the fight to bring similar equality to the Southern States. But the seed had been planted.

MLK witnesses President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Credit: Cecil Stoughton/ White House Press Office/ Public domain)

In 1954, MLK became pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama, where segregation was a way of life. He persuaded his primarily Black congregation to register to vote. He also encouraged them to join the NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization.

MLK's pursuit for racial equality began in earnest in December 1955. That's when civil rights activist Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her bus seat to a White passenger. Upset at the injustice, MLK asked the city's African American residents to avoid taking public buses. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted an entire year and even spread to other Southern States. The first-ever joint effort to fight racial discrimination did not go unnoticed. In 1956, the United States Supreme Court ruled segregation on public transportation illegal.

Encouraged by the success, MLK urged citizens across the country to fight segregation policies by staging peaceful sit-ins, boycotts, and marches. The activist became famous for his inspiring speeches. The most memorable one was delivered in 1963.

MLK delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (Credit: US Government Photo/ Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The events leading to the often quoted 'I Have A Dream' address began in June 1963. That's when President John F. Kennedy asked the US Congress to approve the Civil Rights Act, giving all Americans equal access to public places. To persuade government officials to sign it into law, civil rights leaders encouraged citizens to stage a peaceful rally in Washington, DC. Over 200,000 people from across the country arrived at the capital on August 28, 1963, to participate in what later became known as the "March on Washington." It was here that MLK, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, revealed his dream of living in a country where everyone was treated equally.

The first major milestone towards achieving MLK's dream came with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It ended segregation in public places. The law also banned employment discrimination based on race, color, gender, or national origin. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, allowing African Americans to exercise their right to vote in US elections, followed soon after. The Fair Housing Act of 1968, prohibiting racial discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of property, was the final victory in assuring equal rights for all Americans. Unfortunately, MLK did not live to see a segregation-free America. He was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.

MLK's courage and efforts have allowed all Americans to follow their dreams. It is now up to us to protect his precious legacy by standing up to societal injustices and helping those in need. This January 16, create your legacy by helping community members not just for a single day but on an ongoing basis.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

Resources: History.com, Wikipedia.org, Drmartinlutherkingjr.com

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