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Joint Base Andrews News

NEWS | Jan. 14, 2022

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: Remembering the civil rights leader

By William Landau 316th Wing Historian

Monday, Jan. 17, 2022, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Officially known as the “Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” the federal holiday pays homage to one of America’s preeminent civil rights leaders.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Ga. Dr. King was actually born as Michael King, Jr.; Dr. King’s father, Michael King, Sr., was the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. In 1934, King, Sr. went on a trip to Europe during which time he visited sites associated with the Reformation leader, Martin Luther, and witnessed the rise of Nazism. The world conference of Baptist ministers King, Sr. traveled with condemned the bigoted fascists and upon returning from the trip, King, Sr. changed his name to Martin Luther and also changed his son’s name as well.

Being raised in the segregated South, Dr. King experienced racism at an early age. Once, when at a shoe store with his father, a white store clerk instructed the pair to sit in the back. King, Sr. refused and told his son that, "I don't care how long I have to live with this system, I will never accept it."

Growing up in a religious household, Dr. King followed his father into the ministry, remarking that the church afforded the best avenue for him to pursue "an inner urge to serve humanity." Dr. King graduated from Morehouse College in 1948 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology. He continued his studies, earning a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Crozer Theological Seminary in 1951 and his Doctorate of Philosophy in Systematic Theology from Boston University in 1955.

Dr. King married his wife, Coretta Scott, in 1953 and they went on to have four children. He began his career as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. in 1954. While in Montgomery, Dr. King helped organize a boycott of busses in the city following Ms. Rosa Parks’ refusal to yield her seat on a bus to a white man to comply with Jim Crow laws. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted more than a year during which time Dr. King was arrested, jailed, and had his house bombed by white supremacists. The boycott ended in 1956 when a US District Court determined it was unlawful to segregate whites and blacks on public busses. Unwavering in his determination for justice and eloquent in expressing his views, Dr. King emerged as a national figure during this time.

In 1957, Dr. King and other prominent black civil rights leaders founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The organization sought to end segregation in the South by using black churches to organize non-violent protests. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference engaged in a number of campaigns throughout the South to bring about social change.

In 1960, Dr. King returned home to Atlanta and became co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church with his father. Dr. King remained closely engaged with the civil rights movement throughout the 1960s. He played key roles in some of the most pivotal moments of the era including the protests in Birmingham, Ala. that led to the nation seeing fire hoses and police dogs being used on protestors and the Selma to Montgomery marches that shed further light on racial injustice and how deeply it was entrenched.

Perhaps Dr. King’s most famous moment came during the 1963 March on Washington when he delivered his indelible ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. More than 250,000 people from varying ethnic backgrounds attended the March on Washington; it helped to further galvanize the nation even as it demonstrated support for the civil rights movement.

Dr. King was also instrumental behind the scenes of the civil rights movement. While non-violent protests were the most visible aspect of the initiative, Dr. King met with national leaders behind closed doors to push for legislation to create a more fair and equitable society. Dr. King was instrumental in paving the way for the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act that ended legal segregation and the 1965 Voting Rights Act that put into place protections against suppression of black voters.

Following the successes of the movement, Dr. King continued to champion justice and equality. In 1968, he was in Memphis, Tenn., advocating for the Poor People’s Campaign, an initiative to highlight poverty and economic injustice in America. On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis.

Just four days after Dr. King’s death, US Rep.John Conyers of Michigan introduced congressional legislation to commemorate the civil rights leader’s life. Rep. Conyers’ initial attempt failed. However, later in the year Congress passed the 1968 Civil Rights Act that advanced fair housing policy. The bill addressed some of the very inequities Dr. King was advocating for when he was assassinated and President Lyndon B. Johnson used Dr. King’s association with the cause to help pass the legislation.

US Rep. Conyers remained undeterred and re-introduced legislation in each legislative session until Congress passed a bill in 1983. While King’s birthday is Jan. 15, the holiday is observed on the third Monday in January as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day due to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act that President Johnson signed into effect in 1968. The first observance of the federal holiday occurred in 1986.

In his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Dr. King stated:

 “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”

The men and women of Joint Base Andrews proudly defend that dream today as we pause for reflection on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and celebrate the life of an American icon committed to the pursuit of freedom and equality we all hold so dear.