Earlier this month, on 15 January and on the third Monday of January in each year, Americans celebrate Martin Luther King Day which is the US equivalent of a bank holiday in the United States.  The day is chosen because it is the closest day to Martin Luther King’s birthday which, this year fell on his actual birthday of 15 January.  It is not celebrated here in the UK because although he had a worldwide impact, his main achievements were to change US legislation and attitudes.

Martin Luther King was a civil rights leader and activist who was committed to achieving racial equality through non-violent means and came to prominence in America in the 1950’s and 60’s.  He was a Baptist Minister, and it was his faith which drove his belief in using non-violent protest and civil disobediences to highlight racial inequality.  He participated in and led marches for the right to end discriminatory voting laws, the right to end discrimination on buses, in colleges and in schools, for labour rights and other desegregation laws.  His campaigning pressured the American government to end legalised segregation and pass key legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act 1965 giving millions access to the right to vote. He helped to organise the March on Washington in 1963 where he delivered his “I have a Dream” speech for which he is best known. In this speech, which he delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall, he spoke of his dream of a United States where his children would be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. The March on Washington was attended by over a quarter of a million people and was at the time the largest gathering of protestors in Washington DC’s history. There is a memorial on the spot where he delivered the speech. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

He was assassinated in 1968 and over 3 million people signed a petition in 1968 which called for his birthday to be commemorated which was initially ignored but in 1983, Ronald Reagan signed Martin Luther King Day into law as an official public holiday in the United States and it was first observed in 1986.

Americans are encouraged to use the day as an opportunity to either engage work that honours his legacy or promote his ideals or to learn more about his MLK’s life and achievements. Joe Biden, the current US President, spent the day volunteering at a food bank in Philadelphia promoting Martin Luther King’s commitment to community service.

MLK’s messages of non-violence and equality remain as important today as they were in the 1960’s and Martin Luther King Day is a timely reminder that there is more work to do to achieve equal rights and opportunities but that confronting injustice through non-violent resistance can be remarkably effective to bring about lasting change.