Celebrated on the third Monday in January, Martin Luther King Day is a national holiday that honors the United States’ most famous civil-rights activist.
The Rev. Dr. King’s peaceful struggle against racial discrimination came to national attention in 1955, when he led a boycott protesting laws that required blacks and whites to sit in separate sections on buses. He was jailed and physically attacked, and his home was bombed, but in 1956 the Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional.
In 1963, King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech before a quarter million people during the peaceful March on Washington, D.C. The next year he became the youngest man, at 35, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He continued fighting for civil rights and against poverty until an assassin’s bullet ended his life on April 4, 1968.
Four days later, U.S. Congressman John Conyers introduced legislation providing for a federal holiday remembering King. Coretta Scott King, his widow, founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center in Atlanta, and in 1969 it began holding annual celebrations of King’s birthday (January 15).
Through the 1970s, a few states — including Illinois, Massachusetts, and Connecticut — established King holidays, but in 1979 the Conyers bill was defeated in the House of Representatives by just five votes. The next year, pop star Stevie Wonder released the single “Happy Birthday” to help publicize the cause.