Facts of the past: Celebrating civil rights through MLK Day


Collegian | Jaiden Stanford

Colleen Simpson, Aaron Moore and James Mitchell, president of Front Range Community College and two Colorado State University football players, respectively, applaud Jeni Arndt, mayor of Fort Collins. Her speech was given at Washington Park in Fort Collins at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march Jan. 16.

Serena Bettis, Editor in Chief

Since 1984, the United States federal government has recognized the third Monday in January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day to honor King’s legacy and leadership of the civil rights movement.

While it may be easy to mark MLK Day as the final day of winter break on paper, its history and significance are multifaceted, offering a chance for service, reflection, learning and celebration.


Every year, Colorado State University collaborates with the City of Fort Collins and other community groups to host a local celebration of King’s life. Recently, local celebrations have included a march, speeches and spoken-word poetry. To accompany our photo gallery of this year’s events, The Collegian compiled a brief list of facts surrounding King and his day.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

The United States observes MLK Day on the third Monday of January because that Monday consistently falls close to King’s birthday — Jan. 15, 1929. MLK Day will align with his exact birthday next year on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024.

The federal holiday has existed since Nov. 2, 1983, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and was signed into law by former President Ronald Reagan, albeit begrudgingly. In a press conference on Oct. 19, 1983, Reagan said he would have preferred to celebrate King’s birthday in a way that is “not technically a national holiday,” but “since they seem bent on making it a national holiday, I believe the symbolism of that day is important enough that I’ll sign that legislation when it reaches my desk.”

“King was only 39 years old at the time of his assassination on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The site now holds the National Civil Rights Museum.”

According to the NMAAHC, the push to declare a national holiday in King’s name began just four days after his assassination when Michigan U.S. Rep. John Conyers introduced legislation. It took 15 years for the federal bill to pass, and even then, the holiday was not recognized in all 50 states until 2000, according to the NMAAHC.

Colorado has recognized the holiday since April 4, 1984. A Colorado House bill was first introduced by Rep. Wellington Webb in the 1970s, though it failed multiple times. Rep. King Trimble introduced a bill in 1979, and Rep. Wilma Webb introduced a bill proposing the holiday every year starting in 1981 until she found success in 1984.

Martin Luther King Jr.

King received degrees from Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University.

In 1955 King became the spokesperson for the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama. According to The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, King “utilized the leadership abilities he had gained from his religious background and academic training to forge a distinctive protest strategy that involved the mobilization of Black churches and skillful appeals for white support.”

King is most widely known for his “I Have a Dream” speech and his work leading nonviolent protests for civil rights. In President Joe Biden’s 2023 MLK Day proclamation, Biden said, “(King’s) activism and moral authority helped usher in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

In the 1960s, the FBI began surveillance on King, with then-director J. Edgar Hoover aiming to damage King’s reputation, according to Stanford’s King Institute. The 2020 documentary “MLK/FBI” includes information from recently declassified files on this surveillance.


King was only 39 years old at the time of his assassination on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The site now holds the National Civil Rights Museum.

Prior to his assassination, King began work on the Poor People’s Campaign, a multiracial effort for economic justice.

King’s work and impact, along with those of other civil rights leaders, are well-recorded through history museums, institutes and documentaries available online.

Reach Serena Bettis at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @serenaroseb.