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Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday

January 15, 2001, is the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday.

It is celebrated on the third Monday of January in observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

King was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta. He married Coretta Scott in Marion, Ala., in 1953. And in 1954, he became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.

One year later, at the outset of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he rose to prominence as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association.

In 1957, King was elected president of the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which provided organizational structure to the civil rights movement. In 1963, he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

In 1965, King witnessed President Lyndon Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act into law. Three years later, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday was first observed in 1986.

“It is the first new holiday since 1948, when Memorial Day was created as a ‘prayer for peace’ day,” wrote Paul Andrews, in the Seattle Times. And “King is the only American besides George Washington to have a national holiday designated for his birthday.”

The road to a national holiday was difficult. It began when Congressman John Conyers of Michigan introduced holiday legislation only four days after King’s assassination.

For years, the national holiday legislation was defeated in Congress, despite petitions, congressional testimony, Hollywood support, state holiday enactments and a march on Washington.

By the early 1980s, the legislation had garnered more approval. And in 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill making the third Monday of every January the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday.

“When a holiday commemorates persons known to us in historical time . . . we turn the events of their lives into something of an ‘official’ narrative that places the individuals among the extraordinary,” wrote Jack Santino in All Around the Year. “We retell episodes from their lives that encapsulate the man’s special qualities.”

Such re-telling takes several forms. This month, media outlets will present speeches, clips, photographs and other moments from King’s life.

Every year, the Atlanta, Ga.-based Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc. sponsors a celebration in honor of King. This year, the celebration marks King’s 72nd birthday, the 33rd King Center program and the 15th anniversary of the national holiday.

The theme of this year’s King Center celebration is, “Remember! Celebrate! Act!…A Day On, Not A Day Off.”

“The King Center . . . continues to emphasize Dr. King’s service to humanity with the hope that by observing the Holiday in this way citizens re-dedicate themselves and their lives to the Beloved Community in which he so believed,” read the King Center’s Web site.

“We find the events of his life and his accomplishments being interpreted and reconstructed so as to conform in a kind of cultural shorthand to our . . . hero stories,” wrote Santino. “Martin Luther King’s holiday in January allows us to watch the way this is done, to see a holiday develop its symbols.”

Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s project coordinator.