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Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why Martin Luther King Day?

Martin Luther King, Jr. (born in 1929) was a leader in American civil rights for 13 years.  Through nonviolent protest, he helped to promote racial equality in the United States from December 1955 until his assassination on April 4, 1968.

Picture of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Later in 1968, Dr. King's wife, Coretta Scott King, founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.  Mrs. King dedicated the center as a "living memorial" to continue Dr. King's work of addressing social ills around the world.

Dr. King's accomplishments and his teachings, which drew on the Bible and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, are studied by scholars and students internationally.  Public facilities around the world bear his name, showing his profound impact.  In addition:

Passing the Law

In 1968, shortly after Martin Luther King died, a bill was introduced in Congress to make his birthday a national holiday.  The bill was not voted into law at that time, but its passage became an ongoing campaign.  After 15 years and a supporting petition with six million signatures, Ronald Regan signed the King holiday bill into law.

Because his January 15th birthday was so close to other national holidays, the law set the date of celebration as the third Monday in January rather than the actual date of the 15th.  Martin Luther King Day was first observed in 1986.  By the year 2000, every state observed it as a national holiday.


Because the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., is a relatively new federal holiday, there are few longstanding traditions.  Some educational establishments mark the day by teaching about King's work and the ongoing struggle against racism.

Though named in the law as "Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.," this holiday is also known by other names like "Martin Luther King Day."  In some states, Dr. King's birthday is combined with other days, such as Civil Rights Day, Human Rights Day, and Robert E. Lee's birthday.

In 1994, Congress designated the Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday as a day of service.  This is the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service—"a day on, not a day off."

Businesses and local governments can honor Dr. King by encouraging their employees to serve their communities.  On this day, people of different races should work together in citizen action groups to address serious social needs.

Getting Involved


Image shows the front of the National Community Service dollar.

Image shows the back of the National Community Service dollar.


Turn to the Black history pages to see Congressional Gold Medals that have been awarded to these civil rights leaders, who lived at the same time as Dr. King:

Time Machine

Image shows the words Time Machine and a scene from the Civil Rights era.

Travel in the Time Machine to visit Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956.  There you'll experience the bus boycott for civil rights and learn about many more leaders in this struggle.

For Teachers

Here are some related activities you can use in your classroom.

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