Martin Luther King's Birthday

Martin Luther King's Birthday - Wednesday, January 15, 2025

Federal Birthday Historical

What is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday?

On January 15, we celebrate the birthday of civil right’s leader, Martin Luther King. When we hear his name, we most often think of his legendary “I Have A Dream” speech, the civil rights movement, and, sadly, his assassination. When we celebrate his birthday, let’s take a few moments to look into the personal story of the man himself.

History of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia to Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. King’s given name at birth was Michael King, which was also his father’s original name, but after a period of gradual transitioning by the elder King, he changed both his and his son’s names in 1934.
King was a middle child, between older sister Christine King Farris and younger brother A.D. King. He sang with his church choir at the 1939 Atlanta premiere of the film “Gone with the Wind” and enjoyed singing and music. When King was a child, he befriended a white boy whose father owned a business near his family’s home. When the boys were six, they started school: King attended one for African Americans and his friend went to one specifically for white children. Their friendship ended because the boy’s father didn’t want his son playing with a black child.
In 1955, Dr. King received his Ph.D. in systematic theology at Boston University, with a dissertation titled “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” While pursuing his doctoral studies, King worked as an assistant minister at Boston’s historic Twelfth Baptist Church with Reverend William Hunter Hester, who was an old friend of King’s father and a huge influence on the young man. Also in 1955, Claudette Colvin, a fifteen year-old black schoolgirl in Montgomery, and a few months later Rosa Parks both refused to give up their seats on busses to white men. This lead to the Montgomery bus boycott, urged and planned by Edgar Daniel Nixon and led by King. His role in the bus boycott transformed him into a national figure and the best-known spokesman of the civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King's Birthday timeline


Martin Luther King Jr. Day is officially a holiday

President Reagan signed the holiday into law, and it was first observed three years later. At first, some states resisted observing the holiday as such, giving it alternative names or combining it with other holidays. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000.

April 4, 1968


King never stopped spreading his message of non-violent protest against racial injustice. But there were also people who wanted him silenced. King was attacked more than once during public appearances, as well as arrested during demonstrations. An assassin's bullet fatally wounded King as he stood on a Memphis hotel balcony in 1968.

December 1, 1955

A pivotal moment for civil rights

Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to move to the back of a Montgomery city bus. That night, E.D. Nixon, head of the local chapter of NAACP, met with King and other local civil rights leaders, who elected King to lead a citywide bus boycott. In his first rallying speech as the group’s president, he displayed a natural gift for inspirational rhetoric that would continue to grow stronger in the future.

Mid-20th Century

Questions, decisions, education, marriage

Despite the strong role model of his minister father, King. began questioning religion during his early teenage years. However, when he was a junior in high school, he took a Bible class which influenced him to renew his religious beliefs, and began to envision life as a minister. After graduating from Morehouse College in 1948 and attending Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, King was working on his doctoral studies at Boston University when he met Coretta Scott. They married in 1953, and by 1955, when King earned his Ph.D, he was already pastor of a Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was just 25 years old.

January 15, 1929

A future civil rights leader was born

Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, the middle child of parents who both had deep roots in rural Georgia. His father, who became a successful minister, changed his name to Martin Luther King to honor the German Protestant religious leader Martin Luther.

Martin Luther King's Birthday FAQs

Why do we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday?

We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in honor of his life achievements and influence as an American civil rights leader. 

When was the first MLK Day?

The first MLK Day was celebrated on the third Monday of January — January 17 — in 1983. 

Is January 21 Martin Luther King's birthday?

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is January 15, however, we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on the third Monday of January, which sometimes lands on the 21. 

MLK Day: 5 Steps To A National Holiday

  1. The campaign for a new national holiday began

    Although the campaign for a federal holiday in Martin Luther King Jr.'s honor began soon after his assassination, it would not be officially observed in all 50 states until 2000.

  2. The first bill was defeated in the House

    The bill first came to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1979, but the result was five votes short of the number needed for passage.

  3. The campaign heated up with celebrity support

    After the King Center sought support from the corporate community and the general public, musician Stevie Wonder released the single "Happy Birthday" to popularize the campaign in 1980.

  4. Some states delayed holiday name changes

    In New Hampshire, for example, the holiday known as Civil Rights Day was not changed to Martin Luther King Day until 1999, when the State Legislature voted to change the name.

  5. The final state made MLK Day official

    In 2000, Utah became the last state to have a holiday named after King, by officially changing Human Rights Day to Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Martin Luther King Jr. Statistics

29 Arrests 
According to the King Center, the civil rights leader went to jail 29 times. He was arrested for acts of civil disobedience and on trumped-up charges, such as when he was jailed in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956 for driving 30 miles per hour in a 25mph zone. 
15 years old
Martin was a smart child, so smart that he skipped the 9th and 12th grade before enrolling at Moorehouse College in 1944, the alma mater of his father and maternal grandfather. King originally did not intend to follow the family vocation of becoming a preacher until the Morehouse president convinced him otherwise. He was ordained before graduation. 
3 Grammy nominations
When you think Dr. King, you probably don’t think Grammy award winner and chart topper, but the affluent speaker released albums of his sermons and speeches, receiving 3 Grammy nominations and winning the award posthumously in 1971.

How to Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday

  1. Celebrate diversity over dinner

    To honor Martin Luther King, Jr.'s emphasis on diversity, plan a dinner party where foods from many different ethnic origins are served. A sample menu could include a French crudité platter as an appetizer, bobotie (a kind of fancy meatloaf) from South Africa for the main dish, Moroccan cous-cous as the salad course, followed by the truffle-like brigadeiros from Brazil for dessert, served with Turkish coffee. Extra credit: set up an international music playlist to accompany your feast.

  2. Participate in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service

    The MLK Day of Service is part of United We Serve, the national call-to-service initiative. Find a local project and volunteer; this could be helping to clean up a local park, delivering meals to house-bound people, or collecting food for a homeless shelter.

  3. Revisit the "I Have A Dream" speech

    One of the most profound ways to experience Martin Luther King, Jr.'s most memorable speech is to read it aloud, even if you're alone; hearing the words as you're saying them redoubles the impact of this impassioned, timeless message of hope and healing.

Why Martin Luther King's Birthday is Important

  1. He had a dream

    More than just a speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream that he hoped would someday become a reality. He pushed to end segregation and hoped to create a world where people were seen as people, not as the skin color they were born with. 

  2. He inspired a nation

    King wouldn't be able to change the world on his own, but his words ignited the spark inside the hearts of every activist at the time waiting for the right moment to make a difference. As a leader, he inspired countless people to fight for equality around the nation.

  3. We wouldn't know some of our best friends without him

    Odds are, you have a pretty diverse friend group made up of people from different religions, backgrounds, and ethnicities. Without the efforts of Dr. King and people like him, you would never have gotten the chance to have these friends in your life! 

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