Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: Ushering in 50th year since Nobel Prize, Civil Rights Act

MONDAY, JANUARY 20: In August, the world marked 50 years since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s infamous “Dream” speech in Washington D.C.; today, on America’s celebration of his 85th birthday, the world looks toward two more monumental anniversaries in 2014: the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the 50th anniversary of the granting of a Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. King.

Leaders of The King Center in Atlanta, Ga., focus their year’s theme on inspiring and educating young people to “Choose Nonviolence.” (Parents and teachers can educate children on the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with help from Scholastic.)

Millions of children in elementary schools have grown up with this annual observance, but the holiday was only observed in all 50 states in the year 2000. Wikipedia has more of that history. In the long campaign for this holiday, a broad coalition of King supporters got a boost from Stevie Wonder with his 1981 song Happy Birthday. Wonder’s lyrics made the case for a national holiday:
You know it doesn’t make much sense
There ought to be a law against
Anyone who takes offense
At a day in your celebration
‘Cause we all know in our minds
That there ought to be a time
That we can set aside
To show just how much we love you
And I’m sure you would agree
It couldn’t fit more perfectly
Than to have a world party
On the day you came to be.

Eventually, 6 million signatures were collected in favor of such a holiday, which was signed into law by President Reagan in 1983. The first national observance was 1986, but some states resisted. South Carolina was the last hold out, but fell in line and gave state workers the holiday starting in 2000.


Americans already have been inspired by the 50th anniversary of the speech in Washington D.C. In our August coverage, we recalled, in part:

Caught in the passion of the moment and the 250,000 onlookers who had come to support the speakers, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dropped his papers and ad-libbed a portion of his speech. Nearby, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called to him: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” Originally intended as “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” Dr. King’s words now echo around the world. …  King quoted the Bible, Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln, referenced the United States Constitution and current events, before sharing his dream with the crowd.


Events commence today from Boston (find events here) to Yosemite National Park (where admission is free today), and around the world.

King—and his long legacy in peacemaking—are a central focus of this year’s Interfaith Peacemakers Month, hosted as a part of ReadTheSpirit. In addition to a newly updated profile of King, the Peacemakers series also profiles inspiring men and women who were inspired by King. Today, you can read about Aung San Suu Kyi and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

This year, The King Center—a living memorial founded by Coretta Scott King and carried on by King’s children—sets focus on nonviolence. The Center has been busy preparing plans for this monumental year, which includes an elaborate 10-day birthday celebration. Last week, more than 1,500 K-12 students gathered at the King Center’s campus for engaging dialogues on nonviolence; college students were engaged on Jan. 17 with discussions on the impact of violence on campus and in the community. (A full schedule of events is available on the Center’s website.) The official theme for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2014, via The King Center, will be: “Remember! Celebrate! Act! King’s Legacy of Peace for Our World.”


On July 2, 1964, an act became law under the extremely wordy title: “An act to enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States of America to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes.”

It’s far better known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Wikipedia has a substantial overview of the historic act, its passage and its many features. If you’re really fascinated with the twists and turns of this history, the best in-depth history of the act we’ve found online is part of a website about the legacy of U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois who played a crucial role in the final passage of the legislation.


On December 10, 1964, King accepted his Nobel lecture. The Nobel website maintains some terrific resources on King, including a video of his acceptance speech. The next day, on December 11, King delivered his Nobel lecture. In that talk, he said, in part:

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, “Let my people go.” This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in the United States is a later chapter in the same unfolding story.

He also pointed, in that lecture, to his growing conviction that an equal moral ill was the world’s widespread poverty, which the world’s wealthy were allowing to continue, King argued. He said in part:

The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty. The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for “the least of these”. Deeply etched in the fiber of our religious tradition is the conviction that men are made in the image of God and that they are souls of infinite metaphysical value, the heirs of a legacy of dignity and worth. If we feel this as a profound moral fact, we cannot be content to see men hungry, to see men victimized with starvation and ill health when we have the means to help them. The wealthy nations must go all out to bridge the gulf between the rich minority and the poor majority.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)



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