1929 January 15

Martin Luther King, Jr. is Born


The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was born on this day in1929. His birthday is now celebrated by a federal holiday on the third Monday in January of each year. King became the most prominent leader of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and his impact on American life is immeasurable. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill making King’s birthday a national holiday on November 2, 1983. Reagan and other conservatives opposed the idea, but were forced to accept it because of its broad public support.

Taylor Branch’s award-winning, three-volume biography of King is appropriately titled, America in the King Years, 1954–68.

There were many highlights in Martin Luther King’s long career on behalf of civil rights. He was arrested for the first time on January 26, 1956, for participating in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He led the massive demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, and while in jail there wrote his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail on April 16, 1963. The Birmingham demonstrations force President John F. Kennedy to introduce a federal civil rights bill, which the following year was signed into law on July 2, 1964 as the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act. On August 28, 1963, King gave his famous I have a Dream speech at the massive March on Washington. And on December 11, 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.

The FBI under J. Edgar Hovoer, however, conducted a years-long effort to destroy his career as a civil rights leader. On December 23, 1963 it decided on a plan to “neutralize” him as a leader. Hoover had persuaded Attorney General Robert Kennedy to authorize wiretaps on King on October 10, 1963, and on January 5, 1964 the FBI placed the first unauthorized “bug” (listening device) in a hotel room where King was staying. And most notoriously, on November 21, 1964, the FBI sent an anonymous letter and tape recording to both Kind and his wife with recordings purporting to show King engaged in extra-marital sexual affairs.

Read the monumental Three-Volume biography of Dr. King by Taylor Branch: Parting the Waters (1998); Pillar of Fire (1998); At Canaan’s Edge (2006)

Visit the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC: http://www.nps.gov/mlkm/index.htm

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