Who was Martin Luther King Jr and why do we celebrate MLK Day?

In 2023, January 16th was a very important American holiday. On this day we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr (MLK) Day! Although you probably know a little bit about Martin Luther King Jr, you may not know why we celebrate his birthday on the third Monday of January and how learning about his iconic speeches can help you to practice your English and understand American culture. In this blog we are going to discover all about Martin Luther King Jr and the impact he continues to have on people today.

Who was Martin Luther King?

Martin Luther King Jr was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta Georgia. At birth he was named Michael King Jr after his father. However, his father was a minister and traveled a lot. On a trip to Germany, he visited many places related to the Christian reformist Martin Luther. MLK’s father was inspired to change his name from Michael to Martin Luther. Because he wanted his son to continue to have his name, he also changed his son's name to Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr was a Baptist minister, like his father and grandfather before him. He was also one of the most prominent civil rights activists in the United States and even the world. He believed in nonviolent activism and was greatly inspired by Gandhi. He led numerous non-violent protests and aimed to end discrimination, racial segregation, and gain better social and economic conditions for African Americans in the United States.

Martin Luther King Jr was often in trouble with the law. Although his protests were peaceful, they still broke many laws of the time. During this period black people were not allowed to use ‘white’ facilities and faced many discriminatory rules. This meant breaking the law as a black person was very easy. Going in the wrong store or using the wrong entrance to a building was enough to get arrested. In fact, MLK was arrested 29 times and even spent time in prison.

Martin Luther King Jr wrote and co-wrote many books. On September 20, 1958, he was signing copies of his book ‘Stride Toward Freedom’ in a store in Harlem, New York when he was stabbed in the chest by Izola Curry. She was black woman who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. She thought that MLK was a communist and had caused her to lose her job, among other things. Thankfully the stab wound narrowly missed his aorta and MLK was able to make a full recovery. Izola Curry spent the rest of her life in a psychiatric hospital.

On March 29, 1968, Martin Luther King went to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of black sanitation workers. The workers wanted higher pay and better treatment and were on strike. MLK stayed at the Lorraine Motel – where he always stayed in Memphis. It was well known that MLK stayed at the Lorraine Motel and which room he always used. On April 04 Martin Luther King was standing outside on the balcony of his room when he was fatally shot by James Earl Ray.

What is Martin Luther King Day?

Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrates the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr, but more than that, it celebrates his legacy. It is also a time to reflect on the work that still needs to be done for racial equality both in the United States and across the world.

MLK Day is a federal holiday and is observed on the third Monday of January. This means that the actual date of this holiday changes each year. Although MLK Day is celebrated on a Monday, Martin Luther King Jr was actually born on a Tuesday!

After his assassination, a campaign for a federal holiday in his honor was launched. The holiday was made official in 1983 by President Reagan. The first MLK Day was observed three years later on January 20, 1986.

However, some states disagreed with naming the holiday after Martin Luther King. Some avoided calling it MLK Day and gave it an alternative name like “Civil Rights Day” or “Equality Day”. Finally, in the year 2000 all 50 states officially observed MLK Day for the very first time.

In the United States only three people have days in their honor: Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Martin Luther King.

This year on MLK Day, a huge 22-foot (6.7 meter) bronze statue called “The Embrace” honoring Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta Scott King was unveiled in Boston. It was reported that the sculptor Han Willis Thomas was inspired by a photograph of Martin Luther King hugging Coretta Scott King after winning the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. The Embrace is not the first statue honoring Martin Luther King. In fact, there are many hundreds of sculptures across cities in America. One of the biggest is located at the National Gallery in Washington DC. Students who participated in Zoni’s DC field trip in 2022 were able to view this statue firsthand.

His famous speeches

Not only did MLK write a number of books, but he was also a renowned orator (public speaker). Any time he was due to give a speech, many thousands of people crowded to hear what he had to say. The most famous of all his speeches was his "I Have a Dream" speech. On August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 people of different races gathered peacefully beside the Lincoln Memorial to demand equality for all citizens under the law. It was at this assembly that Martin Luther King delivered this iconic speech. It is regarded as one of the finest speeches in American history and helped put a spotlight on civil rights and paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Martin Luther King was an exceptional speaker. He spoke clearly, well-paced and in a way that all people could understand. Listening to his speeches are a wonderful way to practice your listening comprehension, while also learning about this important time in American history.

The entire “I have a dream” speech is 17 minutes long and can be watched here [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smEqnnklfYs ].

You can watch the “I have a dream” part – the most famous part – with subtitles here [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smEqnnklfYs ].

If you would rather read his speech, you can find it below:

"I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.”

Martin Luther King was one of the most important figures in the creation of the free America we all know, love, and enjoy today. We can learn a lot from Martin Luther King, and we celebrate his day to remember his immense contribution to civil rights. Former President Ronald Reagan once said:

“America is a more democratic nation, a more just nation, a more peaceful nation because Martin Luther King Jr became her pre-eminent non-violent commander”.

If you would like to know more about Zoni Language Centers visit our website www.zoni.edu or call us on +1 (212) 736-9000

535 8th Ave, New York, NY 10018