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Nation Observes Martin Luther King Holiday Jan. 20 (RERELEASE)

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 12, 1997 – Monday, Jan. 20, 1997, marks the nation's 12th observance of a legal holiday honoring slain civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jr.

He was born on Jan. 15, 1929, but the legislation creating the holiday names the third Monday of January as the day on which it is observed. The law creating the holiday said it should "serve as a time for Americans to reflect on the principles of racial equality and nonviolent social change espoused by Martin Luther King Jr."

In 1985, as chair of the federal holiday commission planning the first nine-day observance of the holiday the following year, King's widow, Coretta Scott King, said:

"For the first time in the history of this great nation, we're honoring a peacemaker, a messenger of nonviolence -- a drum major for justice, love and righteousness who was a native son of America. Where others preached hatred, he taught the principles of love, nonviolence and a patriotic commitment to making democracy work for all Americans. Martin's day, therefore, should be a time for peace and nonviolence in all our human relationships and in every aspect of our personal lives ... a day when all of us put aside our differences and join in a spirit of togetherness in recognition of our common humanity."

Born in Atlanta, Ga., King skipped the ninth and 12th grades and was a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta at age 15. While still an undergraduate student, he was ordained a minister and was elected assistant pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church at age 18.

He received a bachelor of arts degree in sociology from Morehouse at 19, a bachelor of divinity degree from Crozer Theological Seminary, Chester, Pa., at 21 and a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University at 25. King also studied at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University.

He once described the life of the black American as "sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination."

In some cities, blacks were forced to sit in the back of public buses and even had to give up their seats to whites. But in December 1955, a black seamstress took a seat in the front of the bus in Montgomery, Ala., and helped to change the face of the American landscape. Told to get up so a white person could sit down, Rosa Parks refused, defying the city's segregated transportation ordinance. She was arrested.

The incident spurred King, then the new pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, and other blacks to organize a boycott of the bus company. The boycott proved successful, gaining widespread public attention and serving as a model for many other similar actions by civil rights activists around the country. The civil rights movement had begun.

Within six months, the courts had decreed state and local laws enforcing the segregation of public transportation were unconstitutional. In the ensuing years, King made equal rights his life's work. Using his own assets and nonviolent tactics, he organized hundreds of boycotts, rallies and marches across the United States, becoming a pivotal civil rights figure. He was often beaten, imprisoned and maligned, but he never stopped teaching or practicing nonviolence.

King was arrested 30 times for participating in civil rights activities. One of those times, while in solitary confinement, King wrote the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in the margins of a newspaper and on scraps of paper. He refuted several influential critics who had condemned his work as "unworthy of a man of God." King wrote he had come to bring the gospel far beyond his own home.

"We have waited for 340 years for our constitutional rights and God-given rights, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter," King wrote.

On Aug. 28, 1963, men and women of all races, religions and political backgrounds participated in a March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington. King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech to a throng of more than 250,000 people that day at the Lincoln Memorial.

King called the huge gathering a "nonviolent army." The march on Washington succeeded far beyond the greatest expectations of its planners in transcending political quarrels of the time, bridging differences between competing groups of Americans and speaking to the conscience of the nation. It succeeded, according to its organizers, because it embraced the most enduring and basic American values -- equality and justice for all.

In 1964, at age 35, King became the youngest man in history and the third black man to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

He was shot and killed while standing on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968. He was in Memphis to help lead sanitation workers in a protest against low wages and working conditions.

He received several hundred other awards for his leadership in the civil rights movement.

King wrote six books: "Stride Toward Freedom," "The Measure of a Man," "Why We Can't Wait," "Strength to Love," "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?: and "The Trumpet of Conscience." All his works and awards are preserved in the archives of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.

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