Each year on the third Monday of January, we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day and reflect on the work that still needs to be done for racial equality. This January 16, make the holiday more than just a day off and take time to reflect and take action on civil rights issues across the globe.
When Is Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2023?
Martin Luther King Day is observed annually on the third Monday of January — January 16. King was an influential civil rights leader — best known for his work on racial equality and ending racial segregation in the United States. His life and achievements are remembered and celebrated on this day.
History of Martin Luther King Jr. Day
The concept of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday was promoted by labor unions. After King’s death, U.S. Representative John Conyers and U.S. Senator Edward Brooke introduced a bill in Congress to make King’s birthday a national holiday. The bill first came to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1979; however, it fell five votes short of the number needed for passage. Two of the main arguments mentioned by opponents were that a paid holiday for federal employees would be too expensive and that a holiday to honor a private citizen would be contrary to longstanding tradition, as King never held public office. In addition, at the time, only two other figures had national holidays honoring them: George Washington and Christopher Columbus.
Soon after, the King Center sought support from the corporate community and the general public. The success of this strategy was cemented when musician Stevie Wonder released the single ‘Happy Birthday to popularize the campaign in 1980 and hosted the Rally for Peace Press Conference in 1981. As a result, six million signatures were collected for a petition for Congress to pass the law, considered the largest petition in favor of an issue in U.S. history.
President Reagan originally opposed the holiday, citing cost concerns. But on November 2, 1983, Reagan signed a bill, proposed by Representative Katie Hall, to create a federal holiday honoring King. The bill had passed the Senate by a count of 78 to 22 and the House of Representatives by 338 to 90. As a result, the holiday was observed for the first time on January 20, 1986. It’s observed on the third Monday of January rather than directly on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday because it follows the Uniform Monday Holiday Act guidelines.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day Around The World
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is one worldwide holiday celebrating political leaders and activists. Here are some other popular ones from across the globe.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day Around the WorldCountryHolidayOccasionDate
India Gandhi Day Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership in the nationalist movement against British colonial rule is celebrated. October 2
South Africa Nelson Mandela Day South Africans honor the former president and great leader Nelson Mandela. July 18
International Malala Day Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai’s birthday is celebrated to honor women’s and children’s rights worldwide. July 12
Kenya Obama Day Obama Day was declared in Kenya shortly after Barack Obama’s victory in the U.S. presidential elections of 2008 — because his father was Kenyan. November 4
Barbados Errol Barrow Day The holiday commemorates former Prime Minister Errol Barrow, who helped lead the country to independence from the British. January 21
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Traditions
Martin Luther King’s unparalleled contributions to racial justice for Black Americans have been revolutionary. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day or MLK Day, schools and offices are closed, but people fully participate in remembering and honoring everything King has accomplished. His values and historical place in American history are discussed and advocated to educate communities and coming generations on the importance of equality and King’s influence. In addition, movies and documentaries on his life are shown, and businesses and organizations run by and for the Black community are shown some support.
Mlk Day Stats
Six million signatures were collected for a petition to Congress to pass the law making Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a federal holiday. A petition only needs 150 signatures to be searchable within the White House database. To cross the second threshold and require a response, a petition must reach 100,000 signatures within 30 days. Stevie Wonder helped to achieve this feat by releasing his iconic single ‘Happy Birthday,’ raising awareness that there should be a day commemorating Dr. King’s life and questioning why people in power would be opposed to celebrating someone fighting for peace and justice.
250,000 March on Washington
During the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. More than 250,000 people attended the demonstration. Though many people are familiar with the famous speech, very few know that the iconic “I have a dream” portion was entirely improvised. If you watch the video of King giving the speech, you’ll notice for the first 2–3 minutes; that he’s reading the speech prepared for him. But at some point, King pauses. Within this pause, the gospel singer and King’s good friend Mahalia Jackson yell, “Tell ’em about the dream!” At this moment, Reverend King took his crowd to church, as he preached to a diverse crowd of supporters his dream for a better and non-violent future.
25,000 March from Selma
The Selma March, also referred to as the Selma to Montgomery March, was a political march from Selma, Alabama, to the state’s capital, Montgomery, from March 21 to 25, 1965. Led by Martin Luther King, Jr., the march was the culminating event of several emotional weeks during which demonstrators twice attempted to march but were stopped, once violently, by local police. Twenty-five thousand people participated in the roughly 50-mile march. These events became a landmark in the American civil rights movements and directly led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day Faqs
Is Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday?
Not only is Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday, but it is also the first holiday honoring an African American.
Why is Martin Luther King Jr. Day known as a Day of Service?
Days of Service help raise awareness, mobilize volunteers, provide individuals with an opportunity to engage and build new connections, and help nonprofits find support for their programs. MLK Day of Service is intended to empower individuals, strengthen communities, bridge barriers, create solutions to social problems, and move us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a “Beloved Community.”
What happened on Martin Luther King Jr. Day?
Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrates Dr. King’s life and achievements as an influential American civil rights leader. The holiday is set on the Monday nearest his birthday.
How To Observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Learn MLK’s full history and narrative
Take the time to learn more about MLK in depth. Read his works and those of his family to learn more about this remarkable man and the stories he told them.
Support the Black community and racial justice
Make Martin Luther King Jr. Day more than just a day off. Take time to understand and support civil rights and the issues facing communities of color. MLK and his contemporaries did a lot to advance civil rights, but there is still much to be done.
Have a conversation
Creating dialogue and having discussions about racial injustice is important. Through conversation, we educate each other, share experiences, and work to create a brighter future.
5 Lesser-known Facts About Martin Luther King, Jr.
His birth name was Michael.
The civil rights leader was given the name Michael King Jr at birth — later, his father changed his name as well as of his son to Martin Luther, after the Protestant Reformation leader.
King started college at the age of 15
King skipped grades 9 and 12 and enrolled at Morehouse College in 1944.
‘I Have a Dream was not his first speech.
Six years before his iconic speech at Lincoln Memorial, King spoke during the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in 1957.
King was imprisoned a lot.
According to the King Center, Martin Luther King, Jr. went to jail 29 times.
His last public speech foreshadowed his death.
In his last speech the night before he was assassinated, King said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now; 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.”
Why Martin Luther King Jr. Day Is Important
He worked to advance civil rights.
The words, leadership, time, and energy King devoted to civil rights helped end segregation in the United States and worked to eliminate unfair practices throughout the nation that negatively affected the Black community. He helped organize rallies, gave speeches across the country, and mobilized thousands of people to help end racial injustice.
He inspires us
MLK inspired millions of people in his lifetime and continues to inspire us today. Across the globe, activists look to King for inspiration and courage. Modern movements for racial equality and justice are extensions of the work that he started.
He promoted civil disobedience.
King’s tactics and manner of protest were largely that of civil disobedience, including sit-ins, marches, and disregard for unjust laws. Many of us follow his example today when protesting and adopt the tactic of civil disobedience.