As yesterday was the third Monday in January, it was Dr Martin Luther King Jr Day in the US. This year the holiday corresponded with King’s actual birthday of 15 January. Observed since 1986, it is one of only three American federal holidays that is named for a person (the other two are Washington’s Birthday and Columbus Day).
It took 15 years of lobbying to achieve, only the third new national holiday of the twentieth century after Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. MLK Day was initially founded by labour unions as a contract negotiation tool. Democrat congressman John Conyers (the man who appeared in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 to state members of Congress "don't read most of the bills") introduced a bill to make King’s birthday a national holiday barely four days after King’s assassination in 1968. In 1970, they submitted petitions to Congress carrying six million signatures. Though support on the Hill was slow in coming, the pressure was maintained by Mass marches in 1982 for voting rights and again a year later for the 20th anniversary of King's “I have a dream” speech in Washington, D.C.
Some conservative senators such as Jesse Helms and John P East questioned whether King was important enough to merit a holiday. Senator East argued that to establish a special holiday just for King was to "elevate him to the same level as the father of our country and above the many other Americans whose achievements approach Washington's”. Others objected that King’s birthday was too close to the Christmas and New Year holidays. However many senators of both parties were keen to court the black vote and anyone who questioned the need for the holiday was likely to be accused of racism. Finally Democrat rep Katie Hall from Indiana brokered an agreement by moving the observance to the third Monday of January each year. The idea of a three-day weekend, plus the fact that the third Monday often follows Super Bowl Sunday, helped gain the necessary numbers for success. President Reagan (himself an opponent of the day) signed the legislation in November 1983.
King is one of the few social leaders of any country to be honoured with a holiday (Gandhi in India is another). Such status by a member of a country's racial minority is almost unheard of. As these honours are usually reserved for military or religious figures, this holiday is a powerful tribute to King's philosophy and stature.
King was born in 1929 with the name of Michael Luther King Jr in Atlanta, Georgia. His father Martin Luther King snr claimed the doctor mistakenly put Michael on the birth certification. King was from a line of pastors. His grandfather, father and Martin himself all served as pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Young Martin attended segregated public schools in Georgia. Aged just 19, he received a BA in sociology in 1948 from Atlanta’s all-male all-black Morehouse College. King then went north to do post-graduate studies and earned his Ph D in 1955 studying Systematic Theology at Boston University.
By now King was also a church pastor, based at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. 1955 was a watershed year in US race relations and Montgomery was at the epicentre. On 1 December 1955, Montgomery seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested and charged for violating racial segregation laws when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. This was a calculated act by Parks to challenge the Jim Crow laws. She had just completed a course in race relations and her arrest was a NAACP plan to test the laws using a guinea pig that was above reproach. The Monday after her arrest, she was found guilty in a local court and fined $10 plus a court cost of $4. Parks appealed. Meanwhile the black community launched a bus boycott. King quickly became a leader and spokesman for the protest.
The boycott lasted over a year. Black taxi drivers lowered their fare to the same price as a bus ticket until the city forced them to increase their fares. When the city then pressurised insurance companies to stop insuring cars used in carpooling, the boycott leaders arranged policies with Lloyds of London. A Montgomery grand jury indicted King along with 88 other boycott leaders for ignoring a state statute that barred boycotts without due cause. King’s parsonage was bombed and his wife and daughter narrowly escaped injury. Finally the protest ended in victory when the US Supreme Court decision outlawed racial segregation on public transport.
Buoyed with this success, King created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He became a national black leader, organising marches for the right to vote, desegregation and labour rights. The FBI, under the paranoid leadership of J Edgar Hoover, began to take an interest in King. Hoover had strong personal animosity against King and his agents routinely broke into SCLC premises. The FBI started wiretapping him in 1961 fearing that communists were trying to infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement. They found no proof of this but used incidental material found in the taps to eventually discredit King. This was deliberate. In 1964, Hoover asked his agents to gather “information concerning King's personal proclivities ... in order that we may consider using this information at an opportune time in a counterintelligence move to discredit him.”
1963 was a watershed year for Martin Luther King Jnr. He was arrested after a protest in Birmingham, Alabama. There he wrote his "Letter From Birmingham City Jail," which advocated civil disobedience against unjust laws. In order to pressure congress to pass a Civil Rights Act, black leaders arranged a march on Washington. An estimated quarter of a million people marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where they heard speeches including King’s most famous words which with his dream they would all be “"Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."
For his gains in the South, King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. In the years that followed, King and others tried to spread the movement north. King moved into a Chicago slum tenement to attract attention to the living conditions of the poor in the big cities of the North. But King alienated the mainstream media after making comments critical of US involvement in the Vietnam War. Time magazine criticised his “Beyond Vietnam” speech as “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi".
On 3 April 1968 King went to Memphis to make a speech in support of striking black sanitary public works employees. There he said “Longevity has its place, but I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain! And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land”. His impassioned oration was prophetic. King was shot dead one day later on the balcony of the Lorraine motel.
Because escaped convict James Earl Ray confessed to the crime and pleaded guilty to avoid the death sentence, there was no trial. Ray was sentence to a 99-year prison sentence. He admitted owning a rifle similar to the one used in the shooting and he also rented the room at the flophouse where the shot was fired. Later he recanted his confession and told a 1977 House Select Committee on Assassinations that he did not shoot King. A former Missouri deputy sheriff Jim Green claimed to be part of an FBI conspiracy to kill King and Ray was just a ‘patsy’ for the crime. Ray had all requests for a trial rejected and he died in 1998 still proclaiming his innocence.
King’s legacy is immense. His gifted oratory has inspired millions around the world to action. He was instrumental in destroying the Jim Crow laws with the passing of two key pieces of legislation, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, both passed in 1965. He was a major influence on the civil rights movement in apartheid-era South Africa. His boyhood home in Atlanta and nearby buildings are now deemed a national historic site. He was turning into such a dangerous radical, it is likely the FBI had him killed. But more than anything else, King was a consummate man of action and an inveterate optimist. When faced with a moment of doubt a few days before he died, he talked himself out of it “We must turn a minus into a plus," King said, "a stumbling block into a steppingstone--we must go on anyhow." Martin Luther King Jnr Day is a fine tribute to his honour.