National Archives photo no. 306-SSM-4C-51-15
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
These words from Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech epitomize his life’s philosophy. As King states elsewhere in the speech, this is also the American dream in a nutshell: for all men to be treated equally. It is the foundation of our Declaration of Independence. It undergirds our Constitution. Is it any surprise a federal holiday was established to honor this man who embodied the heart of America?
Story of the Man
Born in Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr. was shaped by his college years. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta after spending an eye-opening summer in desegregated Connecticut. Morehouse president Benjamin Mays further influenced King with his criticism of blacks’ acceptance of racial segregation. After graduating from Morehouse in 1948, King went to Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he was introduced to Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence in addition to contemporary Protestant thought. After earning a bachelor of divinity degree in 1951, King went to Boston University and earned his doctorate in 1955.
King’s first public protest of racial inequality followed Rosa Park’s famous bus seat incident in 1955. King was chosen to lead the Montgomery bus boycott and earned his leading role in the civil rights movement. Once the boycott had done its job, King and his followers recognized the need for an organization that would work for the equality of African Americans. Therefore, they established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
King’s method of peaceful protest using boycotts, sit-ins, marches and speeches drew much attention and publicity during a time when racial tensions were especially high. Perhaps the highlight of his civil rights career was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. About 250,000 Americans of all races participated in the landmark event. After performances by popular singers such as Bob Dylan and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, as well as speeches by the other civil rights leaders, King closed the demonstration with his now iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. (For a better look at the March, watch the National Archives’ 20-minute documentary.)
While he saw many victories, King also saw much opposition. The safety of his family was threatened multiple times, yet he continued to fight for what he believed was right. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his peaceful fight again racial segregation and injustice. Toward the end of his career, however, King also faced opposition from those on his side who wanted change more quickly than King’s peaceful methods could bring it. On April 4, 1968, King was shot and killed by confessed murderer James Earl Ray on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Journey of the Day
Four days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, U.S. Congressman John Conyers started the fight for a federal holiday in the civil rights leader’s honor. Many states and cities made King’s birthday, Jan. 15, a holiday as early as 1970, but political and racial arguments kept the legislation making the day a federal holiday from passing for 15 years. The legislation was finally agreed upon and signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. The first Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday was celebrated in January 1986. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that every state officially observed the day.
Service to the Community
BJU first observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2017, and from the start it was a day set aside for service to the community. Students volunteer to help at Greenville County Juvenile Detention Center, Greenville Rescue Mission, Greer Relief, Griggs Memorial Baptist Church, Home Works of America, the Phillis Wheatley Center, Meals on Wheels, Shepherd’s Gate and several Miracle Hill Ministries.
Volunteers help with packing meals, cleaning, maintenance projects, landscaping, and even playing basketball.
Alan Benson, vice president for student development and discipleship, encourages students to participate in the service opportunities. He said, “Involvement in a service project on MLK day is a wonderful way to embrace the scriptural understanding of unity in diversity. We are reminded by the Apostle that we are all created uniquely and gifted individually so that we can function in community. We are a body with differing limbs and a house with differing vessels. The best way to promote unity is to serve one another! This is why we have designated MLK Day as a day of service to our community.”