Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday held on the third Monday in January every year, celebrates one of the greatest American leaders recognized worldwide for his advocacy of peaceful protest paving the way to substantial societal change. His death by assassination in 1968 is a low point in the nation’s history, but his Civil Rights legacy continues to provide inspiration to both Americans and people around the world.
MLK Day offers the nation a chance to both reflect on the legacy of the civil rights hero and consider the work that remains. It’s a holiday that seems more vital and significant than ever in an American society where hate crimes are on the rise and inequality continues to be an issue.
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Who Was Dr. Martin Luther King?
King stands out among the revered figures of history because he was not an aristocrat, royalty, elected leader or battlefield warrior. He came from humble roots, the son of a Baptist minister in Atlanta, born Jan. 15, 1929. As he grew up, he saw the inequities around him in a society governed by Jim Crow laws that separated white and Black people in all phases of life.
Perhaps King’s true legacy is that he did not look away. He decided to do something about it.
King, who became a popular minister himself, rose to prominence in the Civil Rights movement, serving as a leader from 1955 to 1968. He first earned national fame by leading the successful Montgomery bus boycott in his 20s, a boycott started after Rosa Parks, a local seamstress at a department store, refused on Dec. 1, 1955, to give up her seat on a city bus to a white person. Police arrested her for violating segregation laws.
After the success of the bus boycott and Parks’ legal case against the city, King went on to lead marches and protests across the nation against the treatment of Black people and the forces of racism and intolerance. He also famously opposed the Vietnam War. He became the face of the Civil Rights Movement, familiar to millions around the world.
In 1963, King delivered one of the best speeches in American history in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It’s popularly known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, but that’s only part of what King had to say. It’s worth reading or listening to in its entirety.
King died on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, where he had come to support Black sanitation workers. A racist prison escapee who later confessed to the murder shot and killed King using a hunting rifle as King stood on the second-floor balcony at the Lorraine Hotel. King was just 39 years old.
A Controversial Beginning
Even the creation of MLK Day provides a lesson. It shows how controversial the Civil Rights Movement was and, in some parts of the country, remains to this day. Much like the tumultuous events of his life, the path to creating a holiday to honor King proved difficult.
It took 15 years of lobbying to get the U.S. Congress to establish MLK Day, which finally became an official holiday in 1986. However, it took until 2000 before all states recognized the holiday. Even today, the states of Alabama and Mississippi continue to celebrate King-Lee day, combining King’s birthday and the birthday of Robert E. Lee. Lee, a slave owner who argued slavery was good for Black people, led the Confederate Army that sought to maintain slavery in the South.
Virginia did something similar from 1984 to 2000, adding Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to the holiday that the state called Lee-Jackson-King Day.
However, despite these challenges in some parts of the country, MLK Day has been a huge success across most of the nation. It continues to shine a light on the importance of accomplishments during the Civil Rights Movement and the hard work that continues to this day.
Honoring Martin Luther King Today
Despite the challenges in the creation of MLK Day, modern-day celebrations have become more powerful and meaningful than ever. For example, DiversityInc Branding Partners have found a variety of ways to honor the legacy of King on MLK Day. They provide examples for what organizations and individuals can do to celebrate the holiday.
For example, PwC’s Yolanda Seals-Coffield wrote that fostering the dream of inclusion and equity for all can make MLK day more “tangible, memorable, and enduring.” PwC (a DiversityInc Hall of Fame company) accomplishes that goal by embedding DEI efforts into business strategy, supporting equity from recruitment to partnership. On a personal note, Seals-Coffield wrote that she and her family focus on collecting resources for those experiencing food insecurity.
TD Bank (No. 13 on DiversityInc’s 2022 Top 50 Companies for Diversity list) focused its MLK Day efforts on King’s speeches about economic equality, including his famous speech in which he described the “other America” where “people are poor by the millions” and “find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” TD Banks efforts include hosting a forum on supporting Black businesses. TD also has directed $750 million into a community investment fund through 2030 that fosters greater financial security and creates opportunities in underserved communities.
Corey Anthony, Chief Diversity Officer at AT&T (a Diversity Inc Hall of Fame company), wrote that in a time where “poverty disproportionately impacts communities of color and access to equitable resources can change the course of life for a family, it is more critical than ever that we hear and act on Dr. King’s message to lift up our neighbors.”
Engaging in Civil Rights Issues Today
Much work remains in Civil Rights. A succinct summary of many of these issues is found in the Human Rights Watch World Report. They include:
Healthcare inequities. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed issues such as unequal access to healthcare as the pandemic took a worse toll on Black, brown and Native American people.
Women’s rights. With the Supreme Court ruling on Roe vs. Wade, as well as the Republican-controlled House of Representatives immediately considering anti-abortion bills in 2023, it’s clear that the assault on women’s rights to healthcare access is not going to end anytime soon.
Attacks on Asians. A shocking increase in the number of attacks on Asian Americans has raised concerns about their safety in public places.
Poverty rates. Poverty continues to impact people of color at much higher rates. The latest figures show that 21.7% of Black people and 17.6% of Hispanic people live in poverty, compared to 9.5% of white people.
Mass incarceration. Nationwide, police incarcerate Black Americans at five times the rate of white Americans. In some states, it’s much higher. For example, a Black person in New Jersey is 12.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than a white person. In Wisconsin, that number is 11.9 times more likely. The disparity is also big in Minnesota (9.7 times more likely), Iowa (9.3 times more likely), and California (9.3 times more likely).
All these issues provide areas where individuals and businesses can find ways to make their voices heard. On MLK Day, it’s important to remember that one thing is certain: By his own example, Dr. King showed that he wouldn’t want people, including business leaders, to look away. He would want them to take action.