Every year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day honors Martin Luther King Jr. and his significant contributions to the American civil rights movement. King was born on January 15, 1929 to a family of pastors in Atlanta, Georgia. Following in their footsteps, he also successfully trained to be a pastor, receiving his doctorate in 1955 from Boston University. By the time he became the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama in 1954, King was already on the executive committee of the NAACP. Following his return to the south, he led the first major African-American civil rights demonstration, a 382-day long boycott of the segregated bus system. During this time, he was threatened, abused, and arrested.
After this demonstration, King’s presence on the national stage only grew – he became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a religion-based civil rights organization that stressed civil disobedience, and spoke across the country against discrimination and injustice. He directed the 1963 March on Washington, at which he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, advised U.S. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On April 4, 1968, this impressive course of accomplishments was cut short when King was assassinated while staying in Memphis, Tennessee.
In the year after King’s death, Congressman John Conyers Jr. introduced legislation to make King’s birthday a federal holiday. Three years later, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference also presented Congress with a petition for a holiday, but for years the bill stalled without sufficient support. By the early 1980s, efforts by figures such as Coretta Scott King and Stevie Wonder pushed the bill through the House and, eventually, the Senate. In 1983, President Reagan signed the bill into law, finally making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday on the third Monday of January.
Below is a collection of resources recognizing King’s crucial role in the American civil rights movement. Browse these resources or jump from section to section by clicking the links below:
King on the Constitution and Declaration of Independence
Almost since the Founding itself there was a debate about whether the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are pro-slavery or racist documents. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison famously burned a copy of the Constitution, declaring it a “covenant with death.” In Dred Scott v. Sanford (1856) Chief Justice Taney ruled against Scott on the argument that the signers of the Declaration and Constitution, bound by the prejudices of their time, had assumed black Americans were members of an inferior race undeserving of any civil rights.
There was also, however, a contrary view, namely that the Founding documents were conceived so as to defend the natural rights of all human beings, no matter their race, even if the Constitution failed to so fully at the time. Although Frederick Douglass initially agreed with his fellow abolitionist that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document, he later declared a change of opinion:
“The ground having been directly taken, that no paper ought to receive the recommendation of the American Anti-Slavery Society that did not assume the Constitution to be a pro-slavery document, we felt in honor bound to announce at once to our old anti-slavery companions that we no longer possessed the requisite qualification for their official approval and commendation; and to assure them that we had arrived at the firm conviction that the Constitution; construed in the light of well established rules of legal interpretation, might be made consistent with its details with the noble purposes avowed in its preamble; and that hereafter we should insist upon the application of such rules to that instrument, and demand that it be wielded in behalf of emancipation.”
Martin Luther King Jr. placed himself firmly as the heir to this tradition in his “I Have a Dream…” speech, arguing that, as imperfect as the Founding was, the Constitution and Declaration imply a promise to recognize the civil rights of all Americans:
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men—yes, black men as well as white men—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Martin Luther King Jr.
April 16, 1963
“…I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence…”
Selected online resources on Martin Luther King Jr.:
What So Proudly We Hail
The What So Proudly We Hail online curriculum offers an ebook,“The Meaning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day,” that reflects on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement and assess their efforts to overcome racial discrimination and to promote racial equality and integration.
Are we at last one nation, with liberty and justice for all? In this ebook, we reflect on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, and assess their efforts to overcome racial discrimination and to promote racial equality and integration. The first chapter explores the origins and traditions of the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration, with particular attention to the American character of the holiday. The second chapter presents powerful accounts of the black American experience during the era of racial segregation with a focus on showing the need for civil rights. The third chapter brings us to the Civil Rights Movement itself, evaluating the goals, strategies, and tactics of the Movement’s various leaders. The final chapter raises questions about the challenging and vexed issues left open in the wake of the successes of the Civil Rights Movement: equality; family, religion, and culture; and identity.
Each selection includes a brief introduction by the editors with guiding questions for discussion. Also unique to this collection is a never before published letter by coeditor Leon R. Kass about his and his wife Amy’s experience working with civil rights activists in Mississippi during the summer of 1965.
The Civil Rights Digital Library
The Civil Rights Digital Library has gathered together a digital collection containing links to photos, historical news film, and oral histories. The project includes a section on Martin Luther King Jr. with both archival collections and reference resources, as well as educator resources.
King Resources from Stanford University
The King Institute at Stanford University provides a wealth of resources on Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work, including an encyclopedia with over 280 articles on the civil rights movement, primary documents, a chronology of King’s life, and recommended readings.
A Case Against Civil Disobedience
A contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr., political scientist Herbert Storing examines the effectiveness and lawfulness of civil disobedience in this essay published shortly after King’s assassination. The piece also examines the changing political philosophy of Frederick Douglass.
*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on Martin Luther King Jr. or civil rights, and would like your work included here, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.