Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States. This holiday falls on the third Monday of every January, which is always very near (or on) King's actual birthday: January 15.
Even if you don't know everything about his story, Martin Luther King Jr.'s name is one that you've most likely at least heard. There's very good reason for that. This Baptist minister arrived in American politics at a time of great conflict and unrest. And his style of peaceful but energizing activism helped the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s turn a corner and led to black people receiving the same rights under law as all other citizens.
The struggle against segregation and racism
In the 1960s, segregation was a common policy throughout much of the U.S., in particular in the southern states. This policy meant that black people were barred from using the same facilities, entrances, and other public areas as white people were. From restaurants and movie theatres to buses and water fountains, blacks were either made to use separate ones or unable to use them at all. In addition, many black people still experienced consistent racism across much of the country, which meant everything from insults and beatings, to kidnappings and even killings.
By the 1950s, protests across the country for equal civil rights became more and more frequent. (For example, 1955 is the year that activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger.) Martin Luther King Jr. was far from the only black civil rights leader. But he stood out for two reasons. One, he consistently pushed for peaceful protest and diplomacy (or discussion with white leaders) instead of violence. Two, he was an exceptional public speaker. His combination of noble actions and inspirational words helped to turn the tide of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Civil Rights Act and legacy
There are many milestone moments in King's life. The Million Man March on Washington, D.C. in 1963 (the place where he delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech). The march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. But his biggest achievement was his role in the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For years, King worked with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to bring equal rights under law to black people. This law made discrimination based on race, sex, religion, or heritage illegal across the country. (This means that the law benefitted not only black people, but all Americans.)
Of course, just because the Civil Rights Act made racism illegal doesn't mean that it stopped it from happening. Only four years after the bill was signed into law, King was assassinated outside a motel in Memphis, Tennessee on March 29, 1968. And even now, almost 50 years later, the problems of racism and inequality are a huge issue in the United States (as well as many other parts of the world).
This is why Martin Luther King Jr. Day is such an important holiday. And why he remains such an important and loved figure. Today, recordings of King's speeches are among the most famous of any American speaker. His words are quoted daily by people looking for hope. Above all, he is a reminder that peaceful, persistent protest was able to achieve great victories for the rights of black people in America.