Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a United States federal holiday marking the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is observed on the third Monday of January each year, which is around the time of King’s birthday, January 15. Here are 9 things you should know about MLK:
1. The campaign for a federal holiday in King’s honor began soon after his assassination in 1968, but Martin Luther King, Jr. Day did not become a U.S federal holiday until Ronald Reagan begrudgingly signed the holiday into law in 1983. (Reagan was concerned that a paid holiday for federal employees would be too expensive.) Only two other persons have U.S. national holidays honoring them: George Washington and Christopher Columbus.
2. King’s literary and rhetorical masterpiece was his 1963 open letter “The Negro Is Your Brother,” better known as the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” The letter, written while King was being held for a protest in the city, was a response to a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen titled “A Call for Unity.” An editor at the New York Times Magazine, Harvey Shapiro, asked King to write his letter for publication in the Magazine, though the Times chose not to publish it.
3. While much of King’s philosophy of nonviolence was derived from Christian—especially Anabaptist—sources, a significant influence was the work of Indian leader Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi. While in seminary King’s gave a presentation he prepared for a class entitled “Christian Theology for Today,” in which he included Gandhi as one of a number of figures he identified as “individuals who greatly reveal the working of the Spirit of God.”
4. In 1964, King became the second African American—and the third black man—to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
5. In his autobiography, King says that in 1960 he voted for John F. Kennedy and that if the president had lived he likely would have made an exception to his non-endorsement policy for a second Kennedy term. But it was JFK’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who issued a written directive authorizing the FBI to wiretap King and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The FBI agents investigated him for possible communist ties, recorded his extramarital affairs and reported on them to government officials, and mailed King a threatening anonymous letter that he interpreted as an attempt to make him commit suicide. While King was in jailed in Birmingham, JFK’s wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, even called Coretta Scott King to express her concern—neither of them realizing the phone was being tapped.
6. King held unorthodox views on theology, which he expressed during his time at Crozer Theological Seminary. In a paper he wrote for a systematic theology class he cast skeptical aspersions on the doctrines of divine Sonship, the Virgin Birth (“. . . the evidence for the tenability of this doctrine is too shallow to convince any objective thinker”), and the Resurrection (“. . . the external evidence for the authenticity of this doctrine is found wanting”). In the conclusion of another paper he writes,
Others doctrines such as a supernatural plan of salvation, the Trinity, the substitutionary theory of the atonement, and the second coming of Christ are all quite prominent in fundamentalist thinking. Such are the views of the fundamentalist and they reveal that he is opposed to theological adaptation to social and cultural change. He sees a progressive scientific age as a retrogressive spiritual age. Amid change all around he is willing to preserve certain ancient ideas even though they are contrary to science.
7. A decade before he was assassinated, King was nearly stabbed to death in Harlem when a mentally ill African-American woman who believed he was conspiring against her with communists, stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener. He underwent emergency surgery, and remained hospitalized for several weeks but made a full recovery. The doctor who performed the operation said, “Had Dr. King sneezed or coughed the weapon would have penetrated the aorta. . . . He was just a sneeze away from death”
8. On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated by the #277 man on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list. In 1967, James Earl Ray escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary by hiding in a truck transporting bread from the prison bakery. After being convicted for the murder of King Ray was sentenced to 99 years in Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. In 1977, Ray became the #351 on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list after he and six other convicts escaped from the prison. He was recaptured three days later and given another year in prison, bringing his sentence to 100 years.
9. King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.