Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an American civil rights leader (Credit: Library of Congress/ Public Domain)

Martin Luther King Day, observed annually on the third Monday of January, celebrates the life and legacy of the American civil rights leader. The federal holiday is designated as a national day of service to encourage Americans to volunteer to improve their communities.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929. He grew up in a world where racial discrimination was a way of life. Black and White people dined at different restaurants and attended different schools. They even sat apart in specially marked areas on buses and trains.

It was only when he went to work in the tobacco fields in Connecticut one summer that MLK realized that life was different in the Northern States. In a letter to his father, the 15-year-old said, "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."

In 1954, MLK, now an ordained minister, became pastor at a church in Montogomery, Alabama. The following year, local civil rights activist Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a White passenger. To protest the injustice, MLK asked the city's African American residents to stop traveling on buses. The boycott lasted an entire year and even spread to other Southern States. In 1956, the Supreme Court ruled segregation on public transportation illegal, giving the activists their first victory.

Encouraged by the success, MLK traveled to other states to convince Americans to protest segregation policies with peaceful sit-ins, boycotts, and marches. The activist's inspiring speeches spurred millions of people to take action. His most memorable address, "I Have A Dream,'"was delivered in 1963.

The events leading to the oft-quoted speech began in June 1963, when President John Kennedy asked Congress to approve a law giving all Americans equal access to public places. To persuade government officials, civil rights leaders asked Americans to stage a peaceful rally in Washington, DC. On August 28, 1963, over 200,000 people from across the country arrived at the nation's capital to participate in what became known as the "March on Washington." That day, MLK stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and revealed his dream of a country where everyone had equal rights.

MLK at the March on Washington in August 1963 (Credit: Library of Congress/ Public Domain)

The first major milestone was 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 was another step in the right direction. It removed race-based restrictions on voting.

The activist's final victory was the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It prohibited racial discrimination in selling, renting, or financing property. Unfortunately, MLK did not live to see a segregation-free America. He was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, just seven days before the bill was signed into law.

The clergyman-turned-activist's courage and efforts have allowed all Americans to follow their dreams. It is now up to all of us, young and old, to protect MLK's legacy by standing up to societal injustices and helping those in need. As you celebrate the holiday on January 15, reflect upon what you can do to make a difference.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

Resources: history.com, jfklibrary.com,w ikipedia.org