Martin Luther King Day

Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Why it Matters and How to Get Involved

Every year on the third Monday of January, the world celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day

This federal holiday honors the birthday and achievements of one of America's most transformative civil rights leaders. Dr. King's dedication to social justice, nonviolent activism, and the pursuit of racial equality has profoundly impacted the fabric of the United States.

Martin Luther King Day raises awareness about the importance of nurturing inclusivity and tolerance. Additionally, it reminds us of the progress made and the challenges remaining in pursuing a more just society. 

This national day commemorates Dr. King's extraordinary impact and spurs individuals and communities to participate in community service and volunteerism actively.

In King's words, "The time is always right to do what is right." 

So this MLK day, remember his courageous efforts and sacrifices in the name of civil rights. We can all take a moment to honor his legacy by embracing his teachings and recommitting ourselves to the cause.

Featured in: January - Awareness Months, Days & Observances.

History and Background of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

MLK at the National Mall
MLK at the National Mall, Washington. Photo: GPA Photo Archive (CC BY 2.0)

In 1968, mere days after King's tragic assassination, U.S. Representative John Conyers proposed a bill to establish a federal holiday honoring the civil rights leader on King’s birthday. 

However, securing this holiday proved challenging despite the King’s death and associated coverage, facing staunch opposition in Congress. Critics cited high costs and the belief that existing federal holidays were enough1.

Ronald Regan finally signed the bill into law in 1983. This made Martin Luther King Jr. Day the only federal holiday designated to honor an individual of African-American heritage.

The national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. was first celebrated on January 20, 1986. Americans have observed MLK day every third Monday of January since. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, was instrumental in establishing this holiday. Furthermore, the musician Stevie Wonder gained attention for his 1980 song "Happy Birthday," which promoted the creation of this holiday.

Despite the establishment of the Martin Luther King holiday, the struggle for its universal recognition across the United States took a number of years. All 50 states officially observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the year 2000. 

In 1994, President Bill Clinton expanded the federal holiday honoring King by enacting the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday and Service Act. This legislation encouraged Americans to volunteer and contribute to their communities. The annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service resulted.

The Cause and Its Challenges

End systemic racism sign.
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Martin Luther King Jr. Day honors King’s life and his achievements as a linchpin in the American civil rights movement. 

This movement aimed to dismantle systemic racism in American society, manifested in injustices like segregation, educational disparities, and employment discrimination. 

Gaining the support and understanding of white Americans posed a significant challenge for civil rights activists. To many, upending the status quo was a difficult pill to swallow. As such, achieving meaningful progress hinged on legal changes and broad shifts in societal attitudes. 

Deeply ingrained racism and prejudice in the United States often led to violent confrontations and attempts to stifle the voices of movement leaders, including Dr. King himself.

Fast forward to modern-day America, and racial inequality and discrimination persist. Recently the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn attention to the need to continue to fight for and improve racial justice.

5 Important Facts About the Civil Rights Movement

Martin Luther King at a press conference
Martin Luther King at a press conference in 1964. Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash.
  • Martin Luther King Jr had a dream – one where people would be judged by their character, not the color of their skin. As a leader in the civil rights movement, King tirelessly pursued this vision, aiming to dismantle the barriers of segregation that divided the nation.
  • Taking inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent resistance against British colonial rule, King adopted a similar approach. He understood the power of peaceful protest and civil disobedience. By using these tactics, he affected change and advanced the cause of racial justice. This nonviolent philosophy would become the cornerstone of the civil rights movement.
  • King played a key role in helping establish both The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Together these acts helped transform American society by eliminating legal racial discrimination. 
  • The Montgomery Bus Boycott is a prime example of King's leadership and the effectiveness of nonviolent protest. Sparked by Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat, this boycott led to the eventual desegregation of public transportation.
  • The ideas of peace, kindness, and empathy advocated by Martin Luther King Jr. still motivate and connect with modern groups of advocates dedicated to building a more equitable and diverse society for all individuals.

Read more: Equality and Diversity Facts.

Efforts and Initiatives

MLK statue
Photo by Bee Calder on Unsplash

Organizations and communities worldwide have long been working to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy and promote his ideals. 

One standout example is the MLK Day of Service, an annual event in the United States led by the Corporation for National and Community Service. This special day encourages citizens to volunteer and get involved in their local communities, embracing Dr. King's powerful vision of a "beloved community" – where individuals of all backgrounds unite for the common good.

Cities across the United States hold various events, including parades, festivals, and educational programs to encourage understanding and unity among diverse groups of people. One such event is the observance of MLK Day by libraries. Here they showcase Dr. King's life and work through book displays and programs. Educators can also find valuable resources and support from Teach for America to incorporate Dr. King's legacy into their lesson plans.

Of course, the influence of Dr. King extends well beyond the United States. International organizations like the United Nations have recognized his work. Their annual International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination followed. Observed on March 21, this global event seeks to galvanize action against racism and discrimination. 

One can't help but feel inspired knowing that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s message of equality, justice, and nonviolent social change continues to resonate and motivate people from all corners of the globe.

How to Get Involved and Celebrate Martin Luther King Day

Many opportunities exist for those wishing to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Whether joining parades, marches, community gatherings, or educational seminars, individuals can immerse themselves in many experiences. 

Education is undeniably crucial in raising awareness about the cause and its relevance. Individuals can explore books, documentaries, and lectures to gain insights into the Civil Rights Movement and King's role.

Going further, organizing discussion groups, film screenings, and even social media campaigns can ignite constructive dialogues. These make for a great forum to engage and reflect on King's message and vision.

You can learn more about King’s legacy at the King Center in Atlanta. The center includes exhibits celebrating his work, from his Nobel Peace Prize awarded in 1964 to the background of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech King delivered on August 28, 1963. 

Involvement in volunteering and fundraising efforts can also make a tangible difference in supporting the cause. Patronizing minority-owned businesses strengthens economic opportunities for marginalized communities.

Moreover, hosting or participating in fundraising events enables organizations to acquire the resources they need to advance civil rights and social justice causes. Furthermore, their vital work helped keep King's dream alive.


We commemorate the profound impact of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on this special day. We remember his unwavering dedication to promoting civil rights and racial equality. Honoring his legacy highlights progress in these areas and fuels the ongoing fight against racism and the pursuit of social justice2,

As we pay our respects to this exceptional leader, we must take action in our own lives to champion the values he held dear. 

Martin Luther King Day FAQs

1. What is Martin Luther King Day?

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a federal holiday in the United States that honors the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

2. When is Martin Luther King Day celebrated?

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated on the third Monday of January every year, which is close to Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday on January 15.

3. Why is Martin Luther King Jr. Day important?

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is important because it commemorates the contributions and achievements of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil Rights Movement and the fight against racial segregation and discrimination.

4. What are some ways to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

You can celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day by attending parades, volunteering, donating to organizations that support the cause, reading books about Martin Luther King Jr., and participating in community service events.

5. Is Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid holiday?

Yes, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a paid federal holiday in the United States, which means that many businesses and organizations close for the day to honor Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy.

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