The Significance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and How to Observe It This Year
Everything you should know about the holiday, plus five ways to celebrate it this year.
Each January, the United States observes a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. But did you know the holiday was created to be a national day of service? This year, consider spending your 3-day weekend learning about Martin Luther King Jr. and thinking about how you can implement his teachings in your own community.
Here's everything you should know about the history of the holiday—and a few ways you can celebrate safely at home this year.
Who Was Martin Luther King Jr.?
Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister from Atlanta, Georgia who made history as a civil rights activist in the 1950s and 1960s. He dedicated his life to advocating for desegregation, the right to vote, and labor rights—freedoms the Black community did not have at the time.
He spent his life preaching Christian values and organizing non-violent protests across the South. He led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and organized the famous March on Washington in 1963, where he gave the famous "I Have a Dream" speech. In 1964 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial inequality through nonviolent measures.
In 1968, King was in Memphis, Tennessee organizing a national campaign when he was assassinated. Following his death, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
What Is Martin Luther King Jr. Day?
Although King was killed more than 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. Day (MLK Day) wasn't declared an official holiday until recently. In 1983, it was approved as a federal holiday, but it wasn't declared a state government holiday until the year 2000.
The holiday is celebrated on the third Monday of January—which was chosen so that the holiday would fall around King's birthday on January 15. Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021 is Monday, January 18.
Because Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a holiday meant to honor King's fight for racial equality, it's the only federal holiday designated as a 'national day of service.' That means that rather than regular time off, Americans are encouraged to spend MLK day bettering their own communities through volunteer work.
How to Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day
In normal years, there are events, parades, and celebrations for Martin Luther King Jr. Day all across the country. But since we're still practicing social distancing guidelines, celebrating at home is the best way to observe the holiday. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to do that—volunteer from home or spend the day learning about King's work and listening to his teachings. However you celebrate, remember that the day is intended to highlight not only how far we've come, but how far we still have to go to achieve racial equality.
Spend the Day Volunteering
Spend this national day of service giving back to your community. There are plenty of ways to volunteer from home, and AmeriCorps is also a great resource for finding ways to give back during the pandemic. Specifically focus on ways you can support the Black community in your area, and once you've found the best way to contribute, commit to regular service hours or donations throughout the year.
Read a Book
You don't have to commit to an activity you can finish in one day. This MLK Day, choose a book or two about King's life and aim to finish them in the next few weeks. Choose a book written by King himself—Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story ($16, Barnes & Noble) is the first book he wrote—or pick up an autobiography or collection of his sermons. The King Center has a full list of books written by and about King to help you get started.
Listen to King's Speeches
If it's been a while since you've listened to any of King's speeches, pick a few to learn from this MLK Day. The famous "I Have a Dream" speech is his most well-known (you can listen to it here), but there are plenty of other speeches you may not have heard before. Here are five you can read online, compiled by CNN.
Watch a Documentary
There's more to learn about King than what you may remember from high school history class. Choose a documentary (or two) and spend the day learning about King's legacy. Then, sit down and make a plan for how you can use his teachings to impact your own community. If you're not sure what to watch, PBS has a special collection of videos that can help you get started.
Teach Your Kids About Him
As you spend the day learning more about King's legacy, be sure to include your kids in the discussion. It's never too early to teach kids about racial equality, and this holiday is the perfect time to introduce the conversation if you haven't done so already. An easy way to start is by reading a book together. We recommend Who Was Martin Luther King Jr.? ($8, Target) from the Who Was? board book series, which is recommended for kids ages 4-8.