It took an arduous 15-year campaign following Dr. King’s death in 1968 before legislation was passed declaring his birthday a federal holiday in 1983. It would be another three years before his birthday received its first celebration in 1986. Eight years after the inaugural celebration, Congress declared Dr. King’s holiday as a national day of service, which continues to inspire an immense amount of individuals throughout the United States to give back to the community. While most holidays are commercialized and viewed as leisure opportunities, Peterson notes that Dr. King’s birthday stands in stark contrast to those concepts. “We don’t think about presidential politics on President’s Day or navigation on Columbus Day, we think about going to buy stuff,” he says. “Dr. King’s holiday has created a discourse around social service to pay homage to his legacy.”
Impact of Non-Violent Protest
Dr. King’s advocacy of non-violence was an effective protest tool that exposed the extreme forms of racism, discrimination and brutality within the nation. The strategy combined the principles of Christianity with the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, the latter of which Rustin is credited with instilling in Dr. King. Decades later, movements such as Occupy Wall Street are now utilizing Dr. King’s method. One byproduct of non-violence is increased media exposure, which Peterson notes has benefitted both Dr. King and Occupy Wall Street organizers. “During Dr. King’s time you couldn’t get media coverage on TV and the genius outcome is that when you have Bull Connor’s fire department hosing humans everyone in the world sees those images.” At one of its peak points of media coverage, Occupy Wall Street’s non-violent efforts accounted for 13% of media storiesand helped catapult coverage on economic issues to 22%, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Youngest Person to Win the Nobel Peace Prize
In 1964, Dr. King had already accomplished more than some people do in their entire lifetimes. Yet, he once again made history as the youngest person to win the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35. The win elevated his international profile and, according to Peterson, it also set the platform for future African American winners, author Toni Morrison and President Barack Obama. “Dr. King won for a legacy of wrestling with the history of racism and Toni Morrison writes about it and that could be why she won,” he notes. As for President Obama, Peterson highlights a similarity between the former and Dr. King when it comes to uniting communities. “Dr. King’s ability to galvanize around civic engagement connects to how Obama came to prominence. It is literally the twin prongs of Dr. King’s work that afforded the opportunity for them to emerge on the international stage.”
The Power of Boycotting for Equality
In 1955, for a total of 381 days, Dr. King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott to integrate the city’s mass transportation bus system. Dr. King helped galvanize virtually the entire community of color to support this initiative, which began when Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat to a White man on the bus. As a result of these actions, the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial segregation in transportation to be unconstitutional. The boycott also led to the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which helped organize additional marches. For Peterson the link between public services, race and socioeconomic issues makes this boycott a seminal moment in the Civil Rights Movement. “Transportation is about poor folk and working folk being able to make it back and forth to their jobs,” he says. “It reminds us how public services are tied to race and civic engagement around race and class issues.”
King’s Impact on Voting Rights
Toward his later years Dr. King began to focus heavily on economic justice and empowerment with the Poor Peoples Campaign and the Memphis, TN sanitation workers’ strike. According to Peterson the influence Dr. King has had on national policy is unprecedented and must be honored with continued vigilance and action to ensure equal rights for all. “It is extraordinary that so many people don’t understand the right to vote is tied to the work that [King] did,” Peterson says. “Now there are more than seven states who wrote legislation to reduce older people, people of color and young people from voting by trying to repeal those things now.”
King Appreciated in the Arts
Long after his passing, Dr. King continues to be branded through the mediums of literature, theater, music, memorials, art and more. Musically, none of the various songs that have honored MLK have been as significant as Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday,” which was created to regenerate support for the campaign to make Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday and reached No. 2 on the UK pop charts. On Broadway, “The Mountaintop,” in preview sales alone has grossed $1,526,258 in ticket sales with an 85% average attendance rate. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial cost approximately $120 million. Also, many visual artists have works set to debut in homage of Dr. King, including creative artist, Beau McCall’s ambitious 6-series button crown project. “His legacy has infinite possibilities to be retread and reinvigorated through new media and pop culture,” states Peterson.