Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! On the third Monday of January, the U.S. collectively celebrates Dr. King’s birthday and recognizes his countless efforts and contributions to the furtherance of human and civil rights. Many of us learned about Dr. King in school, listening to his famous “I Have A Dream” speech and enjoying a day off to celebrate his memory. For those who grew up in the South, you may have even taken field trips to the various historical sites in his hometown of Atlanta or the motel where he was assassinated in Memphis, the Lorraine Motel. For all of us, Dr. King’s teachings and lifelong mission of equality transcend geographic location and background.
Dr. King is most known for his work to end racial injustices faced by Black Americans in the 1960s. He became a pillar of the Civil Rights Movement and was the face of nonviolent progress in the U.S. Because he worked so diligently against racial inequality, it often goes unmentioned that Dr. King advocated for a number of causes that fell outside of the purview of racial justice. This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let’s remember the man whose life’s work was dedicated to the elevation of all marginalized people.
He was Transitioning His Focus to Labor and Economic Equality
On the day of his assassination, April 4, 1968, Dr. King was in Memphis supporting sanitation workers who were on strike. Two workers had been crushed by a garbage truck, sparking outrage and highlighting the need for improved conditions for laborers in Memphis and across the U.S. This trip was in line with Dr. King’s gradual transition to issues plaguing the economically disadvantaged. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. King saw a direct connection between poverty, economic inequality, racism, and human rights. During the 1960s, there was often overlap between communities that faced racial struggles and communities experiencing financial hardship—a not-so-coincidental link that still exists today.
Economic security was the goal of the Poor People’s Campaign and the larger Labor Movement, each of which were integral to Dr. King’s ultimate dream of equality.
He Championed Peaceful Resistance
Dr. King is revered, in large part, because of his belief in nonviolent demonstrations in the fight for racial equality. From the time that he was a young preacher, he spoke about achieving equality through peaceful methods, and he led with that ideology throughout the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King used church sanctuaries and basements to train nonviolent demonstrators for sit-ins, boycotts, and marches. Although Dr. King taught nonviolence, he knew that aggressors would willfully inflict violence on him and other demonstrators, so Dr. King also taught demonstrators to be prepared for cigarette smoke being blown in their faces, being physically attacked, and being forcibly taken into custody—maintaining nonviolence all the while.
Dr. King’s belief in nonviolent demonstrations went beyond U.S. borders. During the Vietnam War, he publicly denounced the conflict as being violent and unnecessary, and he received considerable backlash as a result. He believed that disputes between Vietnam and the U.S. could have been resolved through peaceful negotiations, and he also believed that Black soldiers were disproportionately impacted in injuries and death. He realized that he couldn’t preach messages of nonviolence during domestic unrest and not preach the same messages during foreign unrest.
He Fought for Human Rights on a Global Scale
A common misconception about the Civil Rights Movement and the ongoing fight for racial justice in general is the idea that racism and bigotry are confined to states below the Mason Dixon Line. During the 1960s, the most blatant instances of anti-Black racism occurred in the South, but Northern states weren’t void of their own prejudices. Realizing that true equality could only be reached by going beyond the South, Dr. King was actively expanding his teachings and education throughout the U.S. and the world. In 1966, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) announced the Chicago Freedom Movement, a campaign aimed at fighting the more subtle nuances of racism like discriminatory housing and employment practices in Northern cities. The efforts in Chicago proved successful, and by the end of the summer in 1966, the Chicago Housing authority and Mortgage Bankers Association made considerable changes to their policies.
Outside of the U.S., Dr. King traveled often to various countries to discuss the Black American experience and gain knowledge about other marginalized communities around the globe. Not long after the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King and his wife traveled to Ghana in 1957 for its independence ceremony, using it as inspiration for the freedom he wanted Black Americans to experience in the U.S. Shortly after, in 1959, Dr. King and his wife spent five weeks in India, where he met with Mahatma Gandhi’s family and closest advisors. He also met with India’s leaders in nonviolence and peaceful resistance.
Honoring All of Dr. King’s Work
The “I Have A Dream” speech is one of the most gripping pieces of prose in history. It’s real and honest, optimistic and inspiring—but it only represents a fraction of the work that Dr. King was committed to. Resolving racial injustices is an immediate need and arguably was even more so during the 1960s, but Dr. King saw it as a piece of a larger puzzle of atrocities facing vulnerable communities in America. As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let’s remember the breadth of those Dr. King fought for and continue those fights because his vision was truly one of liberty and justice for all.