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Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Authored by Nathaniel Andrews
Published on 16th January, 2023 3 min read

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Poster for Martin Luther King day.

Today (16/01/2023) is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a public holiday in the United States which celebrates the birthday of one of the most influential civil rights activists of the twentieth century. Born in 1929, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an African American Baptist minister who, throughout his life, continually engaged in the struggle for social justice. King lived in an era of state-sanctioned racial segregation – the so-called “Jim Crow” laws – which ensured that African Americans were severely disadvantaged in many aspects of everyday life, including employment, housing, and education (though segregation was particularly prevalent in the southern states, it remained common throughout the country). 

In 1955, King played a leading part in the Montgomery bus boycott, regarded by many as the start of the civil rights movement. This began after Rosa Parks – an African American woman – refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. The campaign opposed racial segregation on public transport and, the following year, the US Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated seating on buses was unconstitutional. This resulted in Montgomery’s bus system becoming fully integrated in December 1956. In 1957, King co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and, as president of this organisation, he went on to assume a crucial role in a wide range of campaigns and movements across the United States. For example, in 1961, he helped to mobilise thousands of activists in Albany, Georgia, protesting against segregation in the city; in 1963, he and the SCLC launched a campaign against segregation in the city of Birmingham, Alabama; later that year, King represented the SCLC at the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”, where he gave his famous “I have a dream” speech to a crowd of some 200-300,000 people; and, in 1965, King and the SCLC collaborated with the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to organise three marches from Selma, Alabama, opposing state measures that had continually disenfranchised African American voters.

In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to fight racial inequality. He is remembered for his tireless activism and, in particular, his advocacy of non-violent forms of protest. Between 1957 and 1968, he travelled over six million miles and spoke at more than twenty-five hundred events, supporting multiple causes. For instance, he not only opposed racial segregation in the United States: he also campaigned against economic inequality, and became a prominent critic of the Vietnam War. On 4th April 1968 – while he was in Memphis, Tennessee, to show his solidarity with striking African American sanitation workers – King was shot by James Earl Ray, and died later that evening. He was thirty-nine years old. 

Though many people regard the civil rights movement as a historical event, it is important to remember that the struggle for equality and social justice is far from over. In many countries today (Britain included), structural and institutional racism severely restrict the life chances of people of colour, and perpetuate an unequal and discriminatory society. Today, we reflect on the legacy of Dr. King, whose work continues to inspire radical change. In many ways, the Black Lives Matter movement can be seen as the successor to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, continuing the fight for a fairer world.

Authored by Nathaniel Andrews

Nathaniel Andrews

Nathaniel Andrews is Senior Editor at British Online Archives, and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute. Between October 2018 and September 2021, he taught in the Schools of History and Languages at the University of Leeds, and between September 2021 and June 2022, he was a Lecturer in Spanish and Latin American Cultural Studies at the University of Manchester. His research centres primarily on the history of anarchism in the Hispanic World and North America, and he has several publications on the Spanish and Argentinian labour movements. He is currently working on his first monograph.

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Notable Days


The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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