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Martin Luther King Jr. was once considered 'radical.' Here's how he came to be lauded

During his lifetime, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s views were considered radical by much of the white establishment, including the government. King was the subject of several FBI surveillance investigations, designed to collect subversive material on King.
Chick Harrity
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AP
During his lifetime, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s views were considered radical by much of the white establishment, including the government. King was the subject of several FBI surveillance investigations, designed to collect subversive material on King.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is approaching quickly – Monday, Jan. 15 — and this year, the federal holiday falls on the actual birthday of the celebrated civil rights leader who was assassinated more than a half a century ago.

As the United States commemorates the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy, here are a few things to know about the holiday honoring the slain activist and his fight against inequality and racial injustice.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., accompanied by Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy (center), is booked by city police Lt. D.H. Lackey in Montgomery, Ala., on Feb. 23, 1956.
Gene Herrick / AP
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AP
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., accompanied by Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy (center), is booked by city police Lt. D.H. Lackey in Montgomery, Ala., on Feb. 23, 1956.

From subversive to hero

This year marks 56 years since the activist was assassinated.

Today, King is widely lauded as a hero who led a nonviolent crusade against racist segregation policies and horrendous brutality against Black people. But at the time, his views were considered quite radical by much of white America, including the government. (He was the subject of several FBI surveillance operations, designed to collect subversive material on King.)

The Pew Research Center found that by 1966 — two years after he'd received the Nobel Peace Prize — 63% of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of King, "including 44% who viewed him highly unfavorably." Today, 81% of American adults say he had a positive impact on the country.

Jonathan Eig, author of King: A Life, toldNPR in 2023 that King, a pastor who followed in his father's footsteps, was a protest leader who did not like conflict.

Even as he sat at the helm of anti-segregation protests, including the Montgomery bus boycott and the march from Selma, Ala., to the state capitol, Eig said King "is always going out of his way to avoid conflict with people who are his elders. ... And he really doesn't like conflict."

Eig added: "He has to push himself really out of his comfort zone to argue, to debate, to really challenge some of the leaders of this country."

The rising full moon passes behind the Martin Luther King Memorial and the Washington Monument. MLK Day is the only federal holiday dedicated to volunteer service.
J. David Ake / AP
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AP
The rising full moon passes behind the Martin Luther King Memorial and the Washington Monument. MLK Day is the only federal holiday dedicated to volunteer service.

The road to a federal holiday

The fight to declare MLK Day a federally recognized holiday was a long slog for its champions, who began the campaign almost immediately after King's assassination on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.

It was President Ronald Reagan who eventually signed a bill in 1983 that added Martin Luther King Jr. Day to the list of federal holidays, commemorating King's contribution to the civil rights movement. Still, it wasn't officially observed until 1986.

But there were still several holdouts who refused to recognize the holiday at the state level. Most notably, Arizona opposed it until a referendum was passed in 1992, after the state lost an estimated $500 million in revenue when the NFL moved the 1993 Super Bowl game to California in protest.

Why January and why Mondays?

The holiday always lands on the third Monday of the month, roughly around the time of King's actual birthday, Jan. 15. The timing is also in line with the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968, which ensures a long weekend for workers.

In 1994, under then-President Bill Clinton, it became the only federal holiday dedicated to volunteerism, after Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act. Americans are encouraged to observe the day "with acts of civic work and community service" in honor of King's legacy.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.