American Holidays: Martin Luther King Day

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11626

Wouldn't it be cool to have your birthday be a national holiday? It takes a lot more than just being born to earn that honor! Find out what made Martin Luther King, Jr., deserving of that privilege!


Social Studies

Social Studies
learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

  • What makes a man worthy of having his own national holiday?

Martin Luther King, Jr. combated racial oppression through civil disobedience, which is when people refuse to obey laws they find morally wrong using nonviolent measures.

His civil rights protests and marches sparked a revolution, helping to gain equal rights for African-Americans throughout the United States. In 1968, he was assassinated for his beliefs.

Learn about his life and achievements in Martin Luther King, Jr Leader of the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement Biography from e-oja:

  • Do you think these acts make him worthy of a national holiday in his honor?

Shortly after his death, many began advocating for a national holiday in honor of the civil rights leader. This motion was controversial because, at the time, the only person who had a national holiday in his name was George Washington.

At first, supporters wanted to make a holiday on April 4th, which was the day he died.

1969 sign promoting MLK holiday

Image by Marion Trikosko for U.S. News & World Report, via Wikimedia Commons, has no copyright restrictions.

In 1983, a bill went through both houses of Congress approving a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. When the bill came to President Ronald Reagan's desk for final approval or veto, the president was reluctant to sign.

While Reagan admired Dr. King's work, he feared that giving an individual a national holiday would open the door for other people and groups to start demanding the same. Knowing Congress would likely override a veto of the bill, President Reagan signed it into law in 1983:

Reagan signs Matin Luther King bill

Image by the White House Photo Office, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Martin Luther King Day (MLK Day) was first publicly observed in 1986.

Today, MLK Day is celebrated on the third Monday in January because the third week of January is close to Dr. King's birthday on January 15.

Many states and groups combine MLK Day with other holidays and events. For example, the holiday is combined with Civil Rights Day in Arizona and New Hampshire, and with Human Rights Day in Idaho.

Some people are given the day off from work, and some schools allow students to stay home. Schools that are still in session for the day usually spend time teaching about Dr. King and the history of civil rights in America.

school children

Those who are given time off from work are encouraged to spend time volunteering. Overall, the day is meant to remember Dr. King, reflect on the history of civil rights in the United States, and encourage volunteerism.

teens volunteering

Think about the most recent MLK Day.

  • Did you do anything to celebrate?
  • Did you learn about Dr. King and his work?

Move on to the Got It? section to learn more about this American holiday.

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