Martin Luther King Day 2022: Why do we celebrate Dr King on January 17?


Martin Luther King Jr, the American civil rights leader who is most famous for his “I have a dream” speech, was assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39. On the third Monday in January, Martin Luther King Day is a national holiday in the US. This is a chance for Americans to remember Dr King’s legacy in combating racial inequality. However, Britons may also take this opportunity to ask how much they know about the Black British fight for civil rights and Black British History.

Today, Monday, January 17, marks Martin Luther King Day 2022.

In America, the day is a national holiday in which citizens are encouraged to reflect on Dr King’s legacy.

Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of Martin Luther King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and delivering his most famous speech to thousands of spectators.

Some of Dr King’s most-quoted lines include: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

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Tony Warner, founder of Black History Walks – an organisation offering tours around London focusing on Black history – joins to discuss Martin Luther King’s legacy, and how he hopes to inspire more people to learn about Black British history.

Mr Warner said: “Although in the UK we don’t really celebrate Martin Luther King Day, in America Dr King is recognised because he was such a major part of the civil rights movement, he died before his time and he is so influential.

“But just because it’s a national holiday in America now, that wasn’t always the case at all.

“People had to fight with Ronald Reagan in order to eventually pass the law to make it a national holiday, and even then some states chose not to honour Martin Luther King on that day, which is of course a legacy of racism in the first place.

“So, it’s a big deal in America, they’re going to look back to see how far they’ve come since Dr King was assassinated.”

It’s difficult to overstate Dr King’s legacy in securing civil rights for African Americans. However, while Dr King emerged as a leader of the civil rights movement, there were many people around him pushing for change.

Mr Warner said: “As far as why Dr King is so important, it’s because of his fight for civil rights.

“He got two major laws through: the Civil Rights Act 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“Up until that time, you couldn’t vote, you couldn’t use a restaurant, so a lot of progress was made based on his fight.

“It’s also true to say he was not alone. You tend to hear a lot about him and not fully appreciate the diversity, because there were lots of women involved as well.

“Lots of sisters helped fight the struggle, including the famous bus boycott which was mostly co-ordinated and run by black women.”

Mr Warner also describes how while the “I Have a Dream” speech has become Dr King’s most famous, particularly the lines preaching a vision of racial harmony, he also delivered many more radical speeches protesting the Vietnam War, and criticising labour laws including calling for a boycott of Coca-Cola for underpaying black workers.

Many people will feel inspired by Martin Luther King’s messages, and while Britons don’t tend to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, he is a well-known and revered figure in the UK as well as in the US.

However, many Britons might struggle to name a Black British civil rights leader or campaigner, so many people including Mr Warner would love for more Britons to learn about Black British history.

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Mr Warner said: “If you go to any primary school, you are going to be taught about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks in America.

“So here’s the thing, Martin Luther King was a preacher, a civil rights leader and a doctor who came to prominence in around 1955 with the bus boycotts.

“In London in 1931, we had a doctor who was also a preacher, who was also a civil rights leader named Dr Harold Moody.

“Dr Harold Moody set up a group called the League of Coloured People, who met at Tottenham Court Road – not far from Oxford Street, a civil rights group here in London who met 20 years before Luther King came to prominence.”

Dr Moody campaigned against a “colour bar” in the British Armed Forces and health services, preventing black people from serving in the army or from Dr Moody practising as a doctor.

Mr Warner said: “Dr Moody was refused admission to hospitals because he was black. He was told ‘we don’t want any ‘n-words’ here’, which is why he became a self-employed GP in Peckham, South London.”

“He became the first black doctor, and in World War 2 he would go into bomb sites and treat people injured by bombings – but he is not mentioned in any school curriculum.”

Dr Moody is just one example of a Black British historical figure many Britons won’t have heard of.

Mr Warner also points to Paul Stephenson, the Bristolian civil rights campaigner who led a bus boycott in Bristol in 1963.

The first Race Relations Act in the UK was passed in 1965 – the same year as the Voting Rights Act in America – yet, many more Britons will be familiar with the American struggle for civil rights, than what took place in the UK around the same point in time.

Mr Warner said on his tours: “The impression people come with is this ‘racism thing’ is an American construct that happened over there. What we hear about Luther King doing in America, there’s a direct parallel to what was happening in this country.”

If you would like to learn more about Black British History, or join Tony Warner on one of his guided walking tours, visit Black History Walks.


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