Martin Luther King Day: What's It About?

Martin Luther King Day: What's It About?

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an American federal holiday that is celebrated every third Monday of January. This holiday is celebrated to honor the birthday of one Martin Luther King, Jr., although the man’s actual birthday falls on January 15th. The holiday, since its infancy, has been a very interesting topic to students of history and beyond. 


Martin Luther King, Jr. was the primary spokesperson when it came to nonviolent activism during the civil rights movement. The role he played during that highly volatile time of American history propelled King to very significant heights, ultimately culminating in his assassination. The death of Martin Luther King sparked a wave of race riots that took place on a nationwide scale, which speaks volumes of the man’s importance. Almost immediately after his death, a campaign began to honor the martyred King with a holiday of his own.

One of Martin Luther King's many memorable quotes. || Image source:


Despite Martin Luther King’s popularity, there were those who opposed the concept of a holiday centered on him. Two North Carolina Republican Senators, John Porter East and Jesse Helms, led the opposition to the bill that would someday make the holiday legal. One question brought up was whether or not King was significant enough to merit such a distinctive honor. This resistance continued all the way to the very top of the government, with President Ronald Reagan opposing the idea. However, Reagan’s concerns were primarily about the costs that such a holiday would accrue.

Fortunately for proponents of the holiday, Reagan would ultimately sign the bill to make the holiday legal. Unfortunately, they would wait fifteen years after King’s death for the bill to be passed and an additional three years before it would be officially observed. Since then, various states have attempted to co-celebrate it with other holidays and some would utilize alternative names such as Human Rights Day for the state of Utah.


As of 2015, all fifty states of the United States observe the highly controversial Martin Luther King Jr. Day. However, such observance is fairly recent; it was not until the year 2000 that the holiday received nationwide acceptance. Much like King in life, the holiday that celebrates his birth has been characterized by divisiveness and history will continue to look at it as such.