5 Things You Should Know About Martin Luther King, Jr.

Author //  RYAN DAY Read Time // 2-3 minutes    Date // january 18, 2021

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a federal holiday in the United States observed on the third Monday of January, celebrating the life and legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Why do King and his work deserve a national holiday? 

What did he and fellow activists accomplish in their lives? 

How is King’s civil rights work still relevant to us today as Christians?

Here are 5 things you need to know about Martin Luther King, Jr.

1. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the only American other than George Washington whose birthday is a federal holiday

There are only three birthdays that the United States recognizes as national holidays — George Washington, Christopher Columbus, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

So, what makes him as important to America as a founding father?

King is considered the formative figure in the modern fight for the civil rights of all people. During his short time as a civil rights activist and leader, he was at the forefront of ensuring legislative change in this country:

Civil Rights Act of 1964: This banned discrimination in employment and public accommodations based on "race, color, religion, or national origin."

Voting Rights Act of 1965: This act restored and protected the right to vote.

Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965: This allows immigration from groups other than those from the traditional European countries.

Fair Housing Act of 1968: This banned housing discrimination in both sales or rentals.

Without King, these legislative actions of equality would have either been delayed or still not even exist in America. And as Christians, we rejoice when discrimination and racism are stamped out.

2. He was criticized harshly within activist communities for his non-violent approach to protest

Before King was a civil rights activist he was a Baptist minister, which shaped his perspectives on protest, civil disobedience, and activism.

First and foremost, King believed non-violence to be the only acceptable vehicle of change — a belief that found him many critics within activist circles.

Reflecting on Jesus’ commands, Dr. King responded: 

“… it is significant that he does not say, ‘Like your enemy.’ There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me … but Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like.”

In our country, many are protesting on behalf of civil rights and equality. Some believe that violence is the most (or only) way to enact change. But King would disagree, explaining in an article entitled Pilgrimage To Nonviolence that “the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

3. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream Speech” was delivered to over 250,000 people at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963

Beginning with a reference to the Emancipation Proclamation, which was delivered by Abraham Lincoln and declared millions of slaves free in 1863, the “I Have A Dream” speech is considered the most popular and impactful speech of the 20th century.

[EMBED VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vP4iY1TtS3s]

But it wasn’t just his followers who took notice — two days after his speech the FBI wrote a memo detailing why the department needed to target King and monitor his growing influence:

“In the light of King's powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulders above all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.”

4. He was imprisoned 29 times over the course of his life

Martin Luther King, Jr. went to jail 29 times for everything from civil disobedience to minor offense, including when he was jailed in Montgomery, Alabama for driving 30 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour zone.

It was while he was in jail that King penned what is his most popular (and impactful) written piece — Letter from Birmingham City Jail, a stunning rebuke of a newspaper article written by eight white clergy on the day King was arrested.

In the newspaper article, the white clergymen called for “unity” against the “outsider” King and his methods. King argued that direct action was necessary to protest unjust laws.

5. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 by an escaped convict on the FBI’s most wanted list

Towards the end of his life, King sought to widen his appeal beyond his own race so as to make his message of equality more impactful — speaking out publicly against the Vietnam War and working to form a coalition of poor Americans across all races and ethnicities.

In the spring of 1968, while preparing for a planned march to Washington to lobby Congress on behalf of the poor, King was called to Memphis, Tennessee, to support a sanitation workers’ strike. On the night of April 3, King gave a speech at the Mason Temple Church in Memphis that foreshadowed his death:

“I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The next day, as King was standing on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, he was shot in the neck by James Earl Ray, an escaped convict who had broken out of prison less than a year earlier. He was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead at the age of 39.

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