History of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and How to Celebrate during COVID-19
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a time for reflection about the change King wanted to bring to America. Photo: ABC News

On the third Monday of January every year, the federal government closes up shop for a day to honor civil rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr. — who was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

History of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, in the United States, holiday (third Monday in January) honoring the achievements of Martin Luther King, Jr. A Baptist minister who advocated the use of nonviolent means to end racial segregation, he first came to national prominence during a bus boycott by African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. He founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 and led the 1963 March on Washington.

The most influential of African American civil rights leaders during the 1960s, he was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, facilities, and employment, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day is celebrated on Monday, January 18, 2021, according to Time and Date.

Almost immediately after King’s death, there were calls for a national holiday in his honor. Beginning in 1970 a number of states and cities made his birthday, January 15, a holiday. Although legislation for a federal holiday was introduced in Congress as early as 1968, there was sufficient opposition, on racial and political grounds, to block its passage. In 1983 legislation making the third Monday in January a federal holiday finally was passed, and the first observance nationwide was in 1986. The day is usually celebrated with marches and parades and with speeches by civil rights and political leaders.

But the road to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was fraught. It didn't become a federal holiday until 1986, nearly 20 years after it was introduced to Congress, per the King Center. Even then, it faced an upward battle for all states to recognize the holiday, only getting nationally recognized in 2000.

To this day, it collides in Alabama and Mississippi with Robert E. Lee Day, which honors the Confederate general, in Alabama and Mississippi.

While the nation recognizes King as an "icon for democracy" today, in the 1960s and 1970s, he was still a controversial figure, according to Michael Honey, an American historian and professor of humanities at the University of Washington, Tacoma.

“This was the first holiday around a national figure who is not a president, and who is African American,” Honey said. “Many in Congress did not want to recognize an African American that was thought of as a troublemaker by some in his day.”

How does Stevie Wonder factor into the history of Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

Following the defeat of the bill, Stevie Wonder released "Happy Birthday," in support of enacting a national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, according to The King Center, noted USA Today.

The song became a hit, and in the early 1980s, Wonder worked with Coretta Scott King to gain support for the national holiday, according to the King Center.

If King's birthday is Jan. 15, why is Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the third Monday in January?

You can thank the Uniform Monday Holiday Act for that, according to the Department of Labor. The bill was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 and originally designated that three federal holidays – Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Washington's birthday – would fall on Monday, according to the bill. It also recognized Columbus Day as a federal holiday. Years later, Veterans Day was returned to its original date of Nov. 11.

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The act was meant to "enable families who live some distance apart to spend more time together" and allow federal employees time to travel, Johnson said in a 1968 statement.

So, while King's birthday is Wednesday, Jan. 15, this year, it is celebrated like some of the other floating holidays under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.

Activities on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

History of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and How to Celebrate during COVID-19
Photo: Calendar Date

Martin Luther King Day is a relatively new federal holiday and there are few long-standing traditions. It is seen as a day to promote equal rights for all Americans, regardless of their background. Some educational establishments mark the day by teaching their pupils or students about the work of Martin Luther King and the struggle against racial segregation and racism. In recent years, federal legislation has encouraged Americans to give some of their time on this day as volunteers in citizen action groups.

Martin Luther King Day, also known as Martin Luther King’s birthday and Martin Luther King Jr Day, is combined with other days in different states. For example, it is combined with Civil Rights Day in Arizona and New Hampshire, while it is observed together with Human Rights Day in Idaho. It is also a day that is combined with Robert E. Lee’s birthday in some states. The day is known as Wyoming Equality Day in the state of Wyoming.

Public Life

Martin Luther King Day is a federal holiday but has slightly different names in some states. Non-essential Government departments are closed, as are many corporations. Some schools and colleges close but others stay open and teach their students about the life and work of Martin Luther King.

Small companies, such as grocery stores and restaurants tend to be open, although a growing number are choosing to close on this day. Some compensate by opening on Washington's Birthday instead. Recent federal legislation encourages Americans to give some of their time on Martin Luther King Day as volunteers in citizen action groups. Public transit systems may or may not operate on their regular schedule.

Long Weekend

Since Martin Luther King Day falls on Monday, it is one of the public holidays in the United States that always create a long weekend.


Martin Luther King was an important civil rights activist. He was a leader in the movement to end racial segregation in the United States. His most famous address was the "I Have A Dream" speech. He was an advocate of non-violent protest and became the youngest man to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was assassinated in 1968.

In 1968, shortly after Martin Luther King died, a campaign was started for his birthday to become a holiday to honor him. After the first bill was introduced, trade unions lead the campaign for the federal holiday. It was endorsed in 1976. Following support from the musician Stevie Wonder with his single "Happy Birthday" and a petition with six million signatures, the bill became law in 1983. Martin Luther King Day was first observed in 1986, although it was not observed in all states until the year 2000. In 1990, the Wyoming legislature designated Martin Luther King Jr/Wyoming Equality Day as a legal holiday.

How to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day during COVID-19

History of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and How to Celebrate during COVID-19
Photo: Twitter

Take a look at the handful of events happening virtually and around Louisville that celebrate his legacy, reported by Courier Journal.

Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Multicultural Ministry 36th Annual Community-Wide Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration

WHAT: Theme: It’s Time to Repair. Join Rev. Joseph E. Kurtz, the Archdiocesan Gospel Choir, and more at this service of prayer and praise that will include scripture, reflective readings and songs of praise.

WHERE: Cathedral of the Assumption, 433 S. Fifth St.

WHEN: Monday, 10 a.m.

MORE INFORMATION: Due to COVID-19 restrictions, in-person attendance is limited. The event will be live-streamed. For more information, contact the Office of Multicultural Ministry at 502-471-2146.

University of Louisville African American Theatre Program MLK Day Celebration

WHAT: Theme: Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere. A pre-recorded presentation celebrating MLK Day. Speakers: Hannah Drake and Shameka Parrish-Wright.

WHERE: Online

WHEN: Monday, 9 a.m.

MORE INFORMATION: The link will be available on their social media feeds Sunday, and will be posted on Facebook and YouTube at officialUofLAATP.

Muhammad Ali Center MLK Day Celebration

WHAT: Teaching Black History and Culture: An Online Workshop for Educators. The workshop will be virtual (via Zoom) and combine a webinar, video and live streaming. Hosted by the Thomas D. Clark Foundation. Presented live from the Muhammad Ali Center.

WHERE: Online

WHEN: Monday, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

MORE INFORMATION: The workshop is free. To register, visit nku.eventsair.com/shcce/teaching/Site/Register. For more information, contact Mark Neikirk at [email protected]. Zoom link to come.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Program

Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at a Louisville church. By Al Blunk TheCourier-Journal. April 19, 1961

WHAT: Part of the Yearlings Club Forum Series. Guest speaker: Congressman John Yarmuth, U.S. House of Representatives; moderator: Dr. Cherle Dawson-Edwards, University of Louisville Associate Dean, Diversity, Engagement, Culture and Climate.

WHERE: Online

WHEN: Sunday, 4 p.m.

The Democracy! Suite: Virtual performance

WHAT: Celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Featuring The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet's performance of “The Democracy! Suite” with trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis. Presented by the Kentucky Performing Arts and River City Drum Corp.

WHERE: Online

WHEN: Sunday, 4 p.m. Available on-demand through Jan. 20.

MORE INFORMATION: Free, but reservation required at kentuckyperformingarts.org.

A Call to Action: Then and Now: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration

WHAT: A social justice virtual program with Angela Davis and Alicia Garza. They will discuss activism then and now for civil rights, social justice, inclusion and equality, offering pathways to build a world more reflective of Dr. King's dream. Presented by Madam Walker Legacy Center and Indiana University.

WHERE: Online

WHEN: Monday, 4-6 p.m.

MORE INFORMATION: Free; eventbrite.com.

Where Do We Go From Here?: Documentary Film Festival

WHAT: Documentary film festival featuring films on the global freedom struggle that speak to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s unanswered question: Where do we go from here?. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University will host the webinar and film festival. Features over 15 documentaries, musical performances and panel discussions.

WHERE: Online

WHEN: Friday-Tuesday

MORE INFORMATION: Free; eventbrite.com.

John Lewis: Good Trouble: Virtual

WHAT: An account of U.S. Representative John Lewis’ life, legacy and more than 60 years of activism, from a teenager on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement to the legislative powerhouse he was throughout his career. After Lewis petitioned Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to help integrate a segregated school in his hometown of Troy, Alabama, King sent him a round trip bus ticket to meet with him.

WHERE: Online

WHEN: Monday, 12:30 p.m.

MORE INFORMATION: Free with reservations. Program link emailed after registration. For more information email: [email protected].

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship Breakfast: Virtual

WHAT: “40 Years: Celebrating, Reminiscing, Engaging in Good Trouble” with the Ivy League Educational Foundation. Guest speaker: Rev. Dr. Michael C.R. Nabors.

WHERE: Online

WHEN: Monday, 8 a.m. to noon.

MORE INFORMATION: Tickets start at $40; evenbrite.com.

36th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Breakfast

WHAT: The virtual event commemorates the life of the fallen civil rights leader. Theme: Now is the Time. Guest speaker is Professor Melissa Harris-Perry, the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University where she teaches courses on American politics and elections.

WHERE: Online

WHEN: Monday, 9 a.m.

MORE INFORMATION: $20; eventbrite.com.

A Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., Becoming Brave

Dr. Martin Luther King spoke during a voter registration rally in Louisville. Aug. 2, 1967

WHAT: Featuring Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, speaker, author and professor. Also Northside Step Team, gospel-jazz vocalist Josephine Howell, musician Al Price, and guest speakers Cirila Potter and Mikayla Weary. Presented by Lift Every Voice Legacy in partnership with Communities of Color Coalition.

WHERE: Online

WHEN: Monday, 3 p.m.

MORE INFORMATION: Free, donations accepted; beloved4all.org.

'King Day: A Virtual Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday'

Noon and 6 p.m. Monday: The National Civil Rights Museum is closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the institution will host a pair of "livestream" celebrations of the civil rights leader's life and legacy that have been geared to appeal to people of all ages, with a "Storytime" reading from the children's picture book "My Uncle Martin's Big Heart," and scholarly insight into King provided by Dr. Hasan Jeffries of Ohio State University, editor of "Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement." Musicians Garry Goin, Tyke T, Karen Brown and Adajyo will be among the musical performers.

Visit civilrightsmuseum.org.

MLK Day 'Parade'

11 a.m. Monday: With the COVID-19 pandemic making public gatherings unwise and impractical, this year's 36th annual "parade" will be a virtual event — a procession of speakers rather than of marchers and a display of ideas instead of banners.

"This is the first year there will not be a physical parade," said James E. Jones III, president of Teamsters Local 667, the labor union that coordinates the parade along with AFSCME Local 1733, the trade union — formally known as the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees — that includes the sanitation workers whose fight for dignity and improved wages and working conditions brought King to Memphis in 1968.

"There was never really a thought of not recognizing Dr. King and him coming here and the things he achieved, it was more, 'How do we proceed?'" Jones said. "We've marched in the snow, in the ice, in the freezing cold and sometimes in halfway decent weather and all of that, but it would have been totally irresponsible to have an actual parade with everything (coronavirus infections) spiking back up."

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Roughly an hour in length, the "parade" will essentially be a streaming tribute to King's legacy in Memphis, where his mission and the union agenda united in a fight for "livable wages, better benefits, overall equality and better treatment of everybody — which really epitomizes everything Dr. King stood for. We really need this message right now, with all this dissension going on."

Jones said footage from 1968 will be included alongside new testimonials by various community and labor leaders, plus an interview with Elmore Nickleberry, one of the last surviving participants in the sanitation strike.

To access the "parade," visit the local Teamsters Facebook page.

Mid-South Food Bank Volunteer Day

10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday: "Join the Mid-South Food Bank as we honor the service of Martin Luther King Jr. by serving our communities" begins this invitation to volunteers who would like to work a morning or afternoon shift — "in small groups, wearing masks and gloves and taking all necessary precautions" — to help sort and pack food for distribution to food drives and pantries.

For more information, visit midsouthfoodbank.org.

Memphis Grizzlies vs. the Phoenix Suns

4 p.m. Monday: The Grizzlies' hosting of the NBA's MLK Day game is always highlight of the season; but with no fans allowed into the game due to the pandemic, this year's event will be a relatively subdued affair. Nevertheless, those watching the game at home on TNT or Fox Sports Southeast cable channels should expect to see some tributes to King. And viewers who really want to see how King's legacy of activism has been adopted within the sports world should tune in to Fox Sports at 2:30 p.m. Monday for the telecast of the Earl Lloyd Sports Legacy Symposium, which will feature this year's recipients of the 16th annual National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Awards, including 10-time All-Star shooting guard Ray Allen; point guard turned broadcast analyst Kenny Smith; and veteran power forward and WNBA Players Association president Nneka Ogwumike.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day Observances

20 January 2020

19 January 2021

18 January 2022

17 January 2023

15 January 2024

20 Janaury 2025

19 January 2026

18 January 2027

17 January 2028

15 January 2029

21 January 2030

For more information, please check out our KnowInsiders!

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