Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday was first observed as a national holiday in 1986. However, his life had become a fixed part of American mythology for years prior to this. Indeed, to many African Americans whose rights he helped expand, to many other minorities whose lives his victories touched, and to many whites who welcomed the changes his leadership brought, King's life seemed mythological even as he lived it. He is celebrated as a hero not only for the concrete legislation he enabled, but for his articulation of dreams and hopes shared by many during an era of upheaval and change.
After lengthy theological training in the North, King returned to his home region, becoming pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. As a promising newcomer free from the morass of inter-church politics, King became the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott when it broke out in 1955. That year-long non-violent protest, which led to a Supreme Court ruling against bus segregation, brought King to the attention of the country as a whole, and led to the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, an alliance of black Southern churches and ministers. This group elected King their president, and began looking for other civil rights battles to fight.
The episodes immediately following met with less success, but nonetheless provided King with the opportunity to refine his protest strategies. Then, in 1963, King and the SCLC joined a campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, to end segregation there and to force downtown businesses to employ blacks. Peaceful protests were met by fire-hoses and attack-dogs wielded by local police. Images of this violence, broadcast on national news, provoked outrage, and this reaction created a political atmosphere in which strong federal civil rights legislation could gain favor and passage, and the next year President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Meanwhile the SCLC, under King, was repeating the tactics of Birmingham in Selma, Alabama, this time for the sake of African American voter registration. Once again, images of the police brutality directed at the protest enabled the passage of federal legislation, this time the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The community of black activists felt that these two major victories marked the limit of what gains could be made politically, and thus after 1965 King began to focus on blacks' economic problems. His strategies and speeches concentrated increasingly on class as well as race, and addressed the United States as a whole. King had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and this recognition encouraged him to broaden his scope: by the time of his death, he was speaking out virulently against the Vietnam War, and was organizing a Poor People's March on Washington.
When King was assassinated in 1968, the nation shook with the impact. Riots broke out in over one hundred American cities. King was almost immediately sanctified by the white-controlled media, which, however, in its coverage of his accomplishments, also neglected the radicalism of his final three years. Instead his contemporaries focused (as we continue to focus today) on the spirit and the accomplishments of the middle of King's career. For many born after his death, he is known best for the "I Have a Dream" speech, which reflects this spirit, and which he delivered in 1963 at the height of his fame. The federal holiday commemorates this King, who articulated the progressive, human hope of the early 1960s.
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