Monday, January 19th, 2015 the library will be closed in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. But how did it come to pass that the third Monday every January is a federal holiday bearing his name?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a young black Baptist minister from Montgomery, Alabama, in December of 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man, an event which triggered civil rights activists in the area to initiate a boycott of the Montgomery bus system.
Dr. King was elected president of this protest group, and as a result, was thrust into the national spotlight. He participated in sit-ins at lunch counters in Atlanta (for which he was arrested); encouraged the Freedom Riders, who tested segregation laws on interstate buses; and led demonstrations and protest marches like the historic March on Washington in August of 1963, where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech and the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama – the first day of which became known as “Bloody Sunday.
Inspired by Mohandas Gandhi, King followed the idea of civil disobedience first suggested by Henry David Thoreau, where nonviolent resistance is used to create positive social change. He even won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
Society, however, was not unanimously in favor of Dr. King and his ideas. His home was bombed twice, he was stabbed by a black woman in 1958, he received hate mail and death threats, and on April 4, 1968, he was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee by James Earl Ray, an escaped convict who plead guilty to the assassination, but later recanted his confession.
Four days after Dr. King’s death, U.S. Representative John Conyers, Jr. of Detroit proposed the idea of creating a federal holiday in King’s honor. Many states declared his birthday, January 15, to be a holiday throughout the 1970s, but it wasn’t until November 2, 1983 that the U.S. Congress passed the bill making it a federal holiday.
President Reagan signed the bill and January 20, 1986 was the first official observance. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush changed the observance to be the third Monday in January and January 2000 was the first time all 50 states observed the holiday. Interestingly enough, New Hampshire was one of the last states to recognize this as a federal holiday, not doing so until 1999.
For more information on Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, the Freedom Riders and the Civil Rights Movement, check out:
A call to conscience : the landmark speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Freedom riders : 1961 and the struggle for racial justice, by Raymond Arsenault
Voices of freedom : an oral history of the civil rights movement, by Henry Hampton
I am Rosa Parks, by Rosa Parks
We shall overcome : the history of the American civil rights movement, by Reggie Finlayson
Why not every man? : African Americans and civil disobedience in the quest for the dream, by George Hendrick