This is the first of a two-part series. The second will publish Jan. 22.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is celebrated and idolized for his unwavering stance against racial injustice. Though he consistently spoke passionately about the unjust social climate facing people of color across the country during the Civil Rights Movement, he also took tangible activist action to encourage change.

In death, he is the most widely known African-American leader. In 1983 President Ronald Regan signed into law a bill making his birthday a national holiday which was celebrated for the first time on Jan. 20,1986. Except for Presidents and Christopher Columbus, he is the only person and first African-American, to have a national holiday.

Dating back to just 2000, when it was first observed by all 50 states, MLK Jr Day is seen as a day to promote equal rights for all Americans, regardless of racial, gender, ethnicity, religious, or other backgrounds. Most workplaces and federal offices take the day off in his honor.

In schools, many pupils are taught about the accomplishments Dr. King led in the United States. In recent years, private organizations and federal legislation have encouraged Americans to volunteer their time on the day.

In his honor, there are public buildings named after him, and a memorial on Independence Mall in Washington, D.C. He took us a long way toward realizing “A Dream,” and we are better for it. Today, there are no segregated lunch counters, no “colored,” no separate but equal.

So, who was Martin Luther King, Jr.? Michael King, Jr. was born on Jan. 15, 1929, the middle child of descendants of sharecroppers from a poor farming community and Baptist ministers. When his father (Michael Sr.) traveled to Germany and was inspired by Protestant Reformation Leader, Martin Luther, his father changed his name to Martin Luther King and later Michael Jr. would follow suit and change his name to Martin Luther King Jr.

He entered Morehouse College at the age of 15 and earned a bachelor’s in sociology in 1948, then continued his studies at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania where he thrived in all his studies, was elected student body president, was valedictorian of his class and earned a fellowship for graduate study.

While studying theology, he came under the mentorship of Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, Morehouse College President, an outspoken advocate for racial equality, who influenced young Martin’s spiritual development, encouraging him to view Christianity as a potential force for social change.

He met and married Coretta Scott in 1953, was named Pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama in 1954, and completed his Ph.D. in 1955 at the young age of 25 years old.

On Dec. 1, 1955, 42-year-old Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue Bus and sat on the front row of “the colored” section. All the “white only” sections filled up and tired Rosa was told by the bus driver to give up her seat. She refused and was arrested. That same night, the NAACP would organize and young Martin at the age of 25 would be elected the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott because he was young, well-trained with solid family connections and had professional standing.

In his first speech as the group's president, King declared, "We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice."

The Bus Boycott would last some 382 days, during which African Americans in the Montgomery community walked to work, were harassed, intimidated, experienced violence, and the homes of young Martin and the NAACP president were attacked before the City of Montgomery would finally lift the Jim Crow law on segregated busing.

Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt, Chief Investigator retired, Santa Barbara County Public Defender, is a community activist and president of the Santa Maria-Lompoc Branch of the NAACP.

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