In 1983, the 98th Congress passed Public Law 98-144 to honor the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. This was first celebrated as a Federal legal holiday on January 20, 1986 and has been observed on the third Monday of January since that time. Congress' intention was that the holiday "serve as a time for Americans to reflect on the principles of racial equality and nonviolent social change espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr." (36 USC, Section 169j).
King was born on January 15, 1929 and gained national prominence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott began when Rosa Parks, a 42 year old seamstress, refused to give up her seat to a white man on December 1, 1955. A Montgomery city ordinance at that time required black individuals to give up their seats to white individuals. The boycott lasted 381 days and served as the impetus in the creation of Southern Christian Leadership Conference. SCLC was founded by Dr. King and others in order to work for civil rights legislation.
From this point forward, King's name became virtually synonymous with the civil rights movement of the late 1950's and early 1960's. He was at the center of almost every major demonstration and was arrested many times. In April 1963, he composed Letter from the Birmingham Jail. Later that year, King delivered his most famous speech when he told participants in the March on Washington "I have a dream."
During the next few years, King and the movement realized many successes including the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the ruling of the poll tax as unconstitutional, and the desegregation of schools which had ignored the decision reached in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1967, King began to focus some of his energy on the war in Vietnam, a move that many believed to be a betrayal of the civil rights cause. King justified his decision by stating in a 1967 speech that "we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools."
In early April, 1968, he traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to march in support of local sanitation workers. On the evening of April 3, he delivered his prophetic "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech in which he said:
I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seenthe 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.
So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen theglory of the coming of the Lord!
Dr. King was assassinated the next morning while he stood on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel. In March, 1969, James Earl Ray confessed to the crime. However, Ray has since recanted his confession and in 1978, the U. S. House of Representatives concluded that he had probably been aided by others.
King is buried at what is now the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. The site includes the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he was a copastor with his father. King's tombstone is engraved with the words:
Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I'm free at last.