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.
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:
- He was awarded five honorary degrees.
- In 1963, he was named Man of the Year by Time magazine.
- In 1964, he was the youngest man ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (at age 35).
- In 1977 (after his death), he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
- In 1983, his birthday became a national holiday.
- In 2011, he became the subject of a permanent memorial on the Great Mall in the nation's capital, one of the few non-presidents given that distinction.
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.
- 1996 National Community Service commemorative silver dollar celebrates the students who volunteer to perform community service. The obverse is based on a medal created for the Women's Auxiliary of the Massachusetts Civil Service Reform Association. The reverse design features the words "Service For America" surrounded by a wreath. Proceeds from the surcharge collected on the sale of each of these coins was directed by the legislation to be forwarded to the National Community Service Trust "to fund innovative community service programs at American universities, including the service, research, and teaching activities of the faculty and students involved."
- 1997 Jackie Robinson commemorative silver dollar honors Robinson for paving the way to integration in major league baseball. The coin was released 50 years after this breakthrough.
- 2007 Little Rock High School Desegregation silver dollar commemorates the nine high school students who first desegregated Little Rock Central High School. The coin was released on the 50th anniversary of the event.
- In December 2008, President Bush signed legislation that authorizes a silver dollar to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To be produced in 2014, the dollar's designs will symbolize "the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its contribution to civil rights in America."
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:
- Little Rock Nine
- Roy Wilkins
- Rosa Parks
- Dorothy Height
- Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka
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.
Here are some related activities you can use in your classroom.
- Notable American Citizens Teacher Feature (Social Studies) focuses on Booker T. Washington and other influential African Americans in our history.
- What's Her Story? Teacher Feature (Social Studies) explores the image of Liberty symbolized as a woman on /many historic American coins, and why this symbol is so important to our country.
- Dedication on Display Teacher Feature (Language Arts) starts with the 1956 Civil Rights era in the Time Machine. Then the students research Congressional Gold Medals that have been awarded to African-Americans and note their accomplishment/s and lasting impact.
- Lend a Helping Hand lesson plan (Social Studies and Language Arts, grades four through six) addresses the importance of philanthropy, community service, and volunteerism in our culture. Students then examine the contributions of famous Americans to the national park system.