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Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a preacher, minister, and one of the most prominent leaders in the civil rights movement. Through acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, King advanced the rights of Black Americans during the Jim Crow era of segregation from 1955 until his assassination in 1968.

He participated in and led marches for the right to vote, desegregation, labor rights, and other civil rights. Some of his most notable efforts include the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the 1963 March on Washington –– where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech –– and the organization of two of the three marches from Selma to Montgomery.

King died on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee after being fatally shot by an assassin. James Earl Ray, a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary, was arrested and pleaded guilty to the assassination.

After his death, nationwide anger and mourning broke out. Days later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968.


Calls for a federal holiday commemorating King’s life and legacy started shortly after his assassination. While some states began celebrating as early as 1971, it wasn’t signed until 1983. It was first observed three years later, but some states continued to resist, giving it alternative name or lumping it in with other holidays.

All 50 states officially observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for the first time in the year 2000, 32 years after King’s death. Today, the holiday is celebrated on the third Monday of January each year. King’s actual birthday is January 15, 1929.


Though he never lived in New Orleans and most of his efforts were based elsewhere, one of King’s most well-known legacy began in the city. King was in New Orleans in 1957 at the New Zion Baptist Church in Central City, where he and other prominent New Orleanians and Louisianans founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Previously called the Southern Negro Leaders Conference, the organization would quickly become the most one of the most important organizations in the civil rights movement. At the meeting, King was elected the first president of the group. He called segregation “a great cancer in the body politic” and that discrimination was “slavery covered up with artificial niceties of complexity.” The SCLC still exists today, and continues to advocate for civil rights and mobilize against discrimination. 

The New Zion Baptist Church recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, and is considered an important landmark on the United States Civil Rights Trail.

While King did not organize in New Orleans, local efforts aided the larger civil rights movement and MLK’s mission, like the Dryades Street Boycott and the Woolworth Protests.


Every year, the Library hosts a celebration in honor of King’s legacy. This year’s theme is Freedom Songs and Mahalia Jackson, a New Orleans musical and civil rights icon. Jackson and King worked closely together, and Jackson’s music is often referred to as “the soundtrack to the civil rights movement.”

Lecturer, publisher, and author Janis Kearney will lead the event alongside the Library’s African American Resource Collection team. Kearney’s new book is called “Only on Sunday: Mahalia Jackson’s Long Journey.” She will share Jackson’s story, her relationship with King,  and her influence on the Civil Rights Movement. Remember, Celebrate, Act starts at 10am at Main Library on Wednesday, January 11.

Local artists will perform freedom songs, as well as other entertainment related to Dr. King’s legacy. 

The Library and the AARC also organized author events with Kearney at Octavia Books Thursday, January 12 at Octavia Books at 6pm and Friday, January 15 at Community Book Center at the same time.


Celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with these recommended titles from the Library.

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