Technically, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was originally observed on January 20, 1986, but since then it always falls on the third Monday of the month. It is meant to celebrate King’s birthday, as well as his life and legacy. MLK was the leading voice for nonviolent activism in the Civil Rights Movement.
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Following his tragic assassination on April 4, 1968, which saw King being shot at the Lorraine Motel by a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary named James Earl Ray, the campaign for a federal holiday in his honor began. In 1983, three years before it was first observed, President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law.
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Sadly, and as a true reflection of exactly what King worked so hard to change, some states refused to acknowledge the holiday for years. It was finally observed by all 50 states in 2000. Today, it is celebrated all over the world, from Canada and Israel to Japan and the Netherlands.
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King, a Baptist minister, was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi to incorporate nonviolence and civil disobedience into the Civil Rights Movement. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech has become one of the most important pieces of spoken word in the history of the world. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
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MLK led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, the 1962 struggle against segregation, the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama and the 1963 March on Washington. In 1965, he helped organize the three Selma to Montgomery marches and the following year he took the movement north to Chicago. To this day, his message is heard loud and clear, and becomes more and more relevant as humanity continues to struggle with the issues he died fighting against.