When is Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2023?
Martin Luther King Day is observed every year on the third Monday of January — on January 16 this year. King was an influential civil rights leader — best known for his work on racial equality and ending racial segregation in the United States. His life and achievements are remembered and celebrated on this day.
History of Martin Luther King Jr. Day
The concept of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday was promoted by labor unions. After King’s death, U.S. Representative John Conyers and U.S. Senator Edward Brooke introduced a bill in Congress to make King’s birthday a national holiday. The bill first came to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1979; however, it fell five votes short of the number needed for passage. Two of the main arguments mentioned by opponents were that a paid holiday for federal employees would be too expensive and that a holiday to honor a private citizen would be contrary to longstanding tradition, as King never held public office. At the time, only two other figures had national holidays honoring them: George Washington and Christopher Columbus.
Soon after, the King Center looked for support from the corporate community and the general public. The success of this strategy was cemented when musician Stevie Wonder released the single ‘Happy Birthday’ to popularize the campaign in 1980 and hosted the Rally for Peace Press Conference in 1981. Six million signatures were collected for a petition for Congress to pass the law and is considered the largest petition in favor of an issue in U.S. history.
President Reagan originally opposed the holiday, citing cost concerns. But on November 2, 1983, Reagan signed a bill, proposed by Representative Katie Hall, to create a federal holiday honoring King. The bill had passed the Senate by a count of 78 to 22, and the House of Representatives by 338 to 90. The holiday was observed for the first time on January 20, 1986. It’s observed on the third Monday of January rather than directly on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday because it follows the guidelines of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day timeline
Martin Luther King Jr. is born in Atlanta, GA.
King makes his first address to the nation, 'Give Us the Ballot,' at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
King delivers his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech at the Lincoln Memorial on the day that more than 200,000 demonstrators participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
King wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
After delivering his final speech, 'I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,' in Memphis the day before, King is shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
Stevie Wonder releases 'Happy Birthday,' a song in which he not only celebrates Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday but also laments the fact that anyone would oppose the idea of a Dr. King holiday.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed for the very first time.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed by all 50 states for the first time.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Traditions
Martin Luther King’s unparalleled contributions to racial justice for Black Americans have been revolutionary. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day or MLK Day, schools and offices are closed, but people fully participate in remembering and honoring everything King has accomplished. His values and historical place in American history are discussed and advocated to educate communities and coming generations on the importance of equality and King’s influence. Movies and documentaries on his life are shown, and businesses and organizations run by and for the Black community are shown some support.
MLK Day Stats
Six million signatures were collected for a petition to Congress to pass the law making Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a federal holiday. A petition only needs 150 signatures in order to be searchable within the White House database. To cross the second threshold and require a response, a petition must reach 100,000 signatures within 30 days. Stevie Wonder helped to achieve this feat by releasing his iconic single ‘Happy Birthday,’ raising awareness of the fact that there should be a day commemorating Dr. King’s life and questioning why people in power would be opposed to celebrating someone fighting for peace and justice.
250,000 March on Washington
During the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The demonstration was attended by more than 250,000 people. Though many people are familiar with the famous speech, very few know that the iconic “I have a dream” portion was entirely improvised. If you watch the video of King giving the speech, you’ll notice for the first 2–3 minutes, he’s reading the speech prepared for him. But at some point, King pauses. Within this pause, the gospel singer and King’s good friend Mahalia Jackson yells out, “Tell’em about the dream!” At this moment, Reverend King took his crowd to church, as he preached to a diverse crowd of supporters his dream for a better and non-violent future.
25,000 March from Selma
The Selma March, also referred to as the Selma to Montgomery March, was a political march from Selma, Alabama to the state’s capital, Montgomery, occurring from March 21 to 25 in 1965. Led by Martin Luther King, Jr., the march was the culminating event of several emotional weeks during which demonstrators twice attempted to march but were stopped, once violently, by local police. 25,000 people participated in the roughly 50-mile march. These events became a landmark in the American civil rights movements and directly led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day FAQs
Is Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday?
Why is Martin Luther King Jr. Day known as a Day of Service?
What happened on Martin Luther King Jr. Day?
How to Observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Learn MLK’s full history and narrative
Take the time to learn more about MLK in depth. Read his works as well as those of his family to learn more about this remarkable man and the stories as he told them.
Support the Black community and racial justice
Make Martin Luther King Jr. Day more than just a day off. Take time to both understand and support civil rights and the issues facing communities of color. MLK and his contemporaries did a lot for the advancement of civil rights, but there is still much to be done.
Have a conversation
Creating dialogue and having discussions about racial injustice is important. Through conversation we educate each other, share experiences, and work to create a brighter future.
5 Lesser-Known Facts About Martin Luther King, Jr.
His birth name was Michael
The civil rights leader was given the name Michael King Jr at birth — later, his father changed his own name as well as of his son to Martin Luther, after the Protestant Reformation leader.
King started college at the age of 15
King skipped grades 9 and 12 and enrolled at Morehouse College in 1944.
‘I Have a Dream’ was not his first speech
Six years before his iconic speech at Lincoln Memorial, King spoke during the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in 1957.
King was imprisoned a lot
According to the King Center, Martin Luther King, Jr. went to jail 29 times.
His last public speech foreshadowed his death
In his last speech the night before he was assassinated, King said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now, I’ve seen the 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.”
Why Martin Luther King Jr. Day is Important
He worked to advance civil rights
The words, leadership, time, and energy King devoted to civil rights helped end segregation in the United States and worked to eliminate unfair practices throughout the nation that negatively affected the Black community. He helped organize rallies, gave speeches across the country, and mobilized thousands of people to help end racial injustice.
He inspires us
MLK inspired millions of people in his lifetime and continues to inspire us to this day. Across the globe, activists look to King for inspiration and courage. Modern movements for racial equality and justice are extensions of the work that he started.
He promoted civil disobedience
King's tactics and manner of protest were largely that of civil disobedience, including sit-ins, marches, and disregard for unjust laws. Many of us follow his example today when protesting and adopt the tactic of civil disobedience.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day dates