S5, Ep. 11: The first celebration of MLK Day

Hear Coretta Scott King talk about her late husband’s legacy on the year of the first commemoration of the holiday in his honor.

Jan 11, 2024

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we look back at the history of the holiday and the international context at the time of its first official celebration. On today’s podcast, hear from Coretta Scott King, speaking just months after the country’s first commemoration of the holiday in 1986. After Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, she led the charge to establish her husband’s birthday as a national holiday. In this presentation, Mrs. King talks about the first celebration, plans for future celebrations, and some of her work promoting peace and freedom around the world. 

Segment 1 (starting at 00:36): The first and second celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Mrs. Coretta Scott King’s speech is from BJC’s 20th National Religious Liberty Conference, held in October 1986. 

Read the biography of Coretta Scott King on the website of the King Center at this link

The theme for the 2024 King Holiday Observance is ‘Shifting the Cultural Climate through the Study and Practice of Kingian Nonviolence.’ Visit the website of the King Center to learn more, including a list of different ways you can honor the day. 

The Progressive National Baptist Convention was the denominational home of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Read more about their history at this link on their website. 

“The King Center” is the name commonly used for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which was established by Mrs. King in 1968.


Segment 2 (starting at 06:18): International work for nonviolence


Segment 3 (starting at 18:09): Hopes and plans for future celebrations


Segment 4 (starting at 23:26): Closing

Click here to listen to a presentation from former Rep. Barbara Jordan during this same 1986 event, which we presented in episode 7 of this season.

Respecting Religion is made possible by BJC’s generous donors. You can support these conversations with a gift to BJC.

Transcript: Season 5, Episode 11: The first celebration of MLK Day (some parts of this transcript have been edited for clarity)

Segment 1: The first and second celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (starting at 00:36)

AMANDA: Welcome to Respecting Religion, a BJC podcast series where we look at religion, the law, and what’s at stake for faith freedom today. I’m Amanda Tyler, executive director of BJC.

We’re dedicating today’s show to the holiday that honors the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Here in 2024, we’ll honor him and his commitment to freedom on Monday, January 15. It’s the third Monday of January, and it falls on his actual birthday this year.

But for this podcast episode, we’re going to go back to the first year it was a federal holiday: 1986. Today’s episode features a speech from Coretta Scott King at a BJC event that fall, talking about the first celebration of the holiday and her hopes for future celebrations.

Coretta Scott King was a leader in her own right, and her bio on the website of the King Center talks about her life and legacy. We’ll link to that in our show notes, and I encourage you to take the time to learn more about her incredible contributions to our world.

We’ll also link to information on this year’s celebration from the King Center, as well as information from the Progressive National Baptist Convention which was the denominational home of Dr. King. Plus, PNBC is also one of BJC’s Baptist member bodies.

After Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, Coretta Scott King began leading the charge to establish her husband’s birthday as a national holiday, and the first celebration was in 1986. Here she is in October that same year, talking about plans for the second national holiday in honor of her late husband, and noting it’s a day for a personal recommitment to fighting tyranny, poverty, racism, disease, and more.

MRS. KING: (audio clip) The Federal Holiday Commission’s national theme for the second national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. is “Living the Dream: Let Freedom Ring” for universal peace with justice, human rights, social and economic progress for all peoples.


We have tied our theme to the United States’ Liberty Bell, our national symbol of independence and freedom. The Liberty Bell was first known as the Independence Bell and was later called the Liberty Bell by abolitionists, who combined politics and direct action in their efforts to win freedom and political equality for American slaves.


The national theme is also tied to Martin’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech that he gave in 1963 at the March on Washington. We all recall that famous speech and the remarks on that sweltering August 28, 1963, afternoon at the Lincoln Memorial when he said, “This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.'”


America’s founding fathers pledged to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred heritage in defense of liberty and freedom. Martin Luther King Jr. was called upon to affirm this pledge by our founding fathers and to ask Americans to live up to these sacred ideals.


Martin proclaimed the timeless message of love, peace with justice, and reconciliation to all nations. He believed strongly in universal peace with justice, and the national holiday in his honor affords an opportunity for people everywhere to act creatively and substantively in promoting peace.


Martin believed in the promotion and exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms. He supported decolonization in accordance with the principles of self-determination, fought to eliminate racial discrimination, and spoke out against apartheid.


He preached about the enhancement of the quality of life, protection of the environment, and he challenged people of every nation to join together against the enemies of human kind, tyranny, poverty, racism, disease, and war. The national holiday in his honor is a time for personal recommitment and action to eradicate these evils.



Segment 2: International work for nonviolence (starting at 06:18)

AMANDA: We’ll pick back up with Coretta Scott King’s 1986 speech as she talks about her recent travels around the world and her work for nonviolence.

MRS. KING: (audio clip) Not very long ago, I journeyed to the Philippines as the guest of President Corazon Aquino. I was pleased to be present for the tributes in honor of the life and legacy of her late husband, Senator Ninoy Aquino.


Senator Aquino was carrying a statement on nonviolence — a statement of his nonviolent political intentions — when he returned to Manila in 1983. But he never had the opportunity to read his statement. Instead, he was assassinated.


Americans and freedom-loving people around the world saw the use of massive nonviolent protests in the Philippines as a fitting epilogue to the first observance of the national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Dedicated nonviolent action helped to bring about peaceful change in the government with very little bloodshed.


The sight on world television of Filipino people — young and old, rich and poor, standing tall without weapons against armed tanks — inspired millions as far away as South Africa to affirm their faith in the philosophy, methodology, and timeliness of Christian nonviolence.


In the same spirit of Christian nonviolence, President Aquino recently told an audience in Boston at Harvard University, “When you touch the humanity of an opponent, you reach his basic decency.”


After my trip to the Philippines, I went to southern Africa. In Harare, Zimbabwe, I met with President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Prime Minister Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, President Masire of Botswana, and President Samora Machel of Mozambique. In addition, I met with Mr. Oliver Tambo, president of the African National Congress, and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India, who was past chairman of the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations.


Our discussions with these leaders focused on the need for a cooperative effort to deal with the adverse regional challenges and consequences of apartheid in South Africa, peculiar economic problems of border states, and the application of sanctions and the possible impact of counter-sanctions imposed by South Africa.


The reason I wanted to meet with President P.W. Botha was to obtain permission to meet with Nelson Mandela and to gain consent for his release from prison, as well as talk with him about his plans, his hopes and dreams, for the future.


I also wanted ‑‑ and, of course, you understand that only President Botha could grant this request. I also wanted to express my outrage and that of the King Center’s officers and board members traveling with me — representing the larger board of directors of 50 people — at the apartheid regime’s recent escalation of terror and to urge President Botha to call a moratorium on violence.


Although many doubted that he would be responsive to such an appeal, we proceeded with our plan for the meeting. We believed and still believe that even the most violent of adversaries can be approached in the true spirit of nonviolence.


Mohandas Gandhi, for example, held frequent meetings with General Jan Christiaan Smuts, his principal adversary in South Africa. At his enthronement, Bishop Tutu himself said ‑‑ and I quote ‑‑ “No matter how bad your brother may be, you can’t renounce him. He may be a murderer or worse, but he remains your brother.” P.W. Botha is, indeed, my brother. He continued to say, “And I must desire and pray the best for him.” End of quote.


Several Black South African leaders were concerned about the timing of my meeting, which they felt was too soon after the terrible violence at Soweto and too close to the pending execution of anti-apartheid protestors. In the interest of international unity, we decided to postpone our meeting with Mr. Botha until a more acceptable time.


Although we were not able to meet with Mr. Botha, we had numerous encouraging discussions with other white and Black leaders in South Africa. In all, we met with some 25 groups, representing millions of South Africans, including community-based organizations and female leadership organizations.


Many leaders we met with emphasized that even after apartheid is dismantled, there will be extremely difficult problems in South Africa. It is clear that Black leaders must join together in a new spirit of reconciliation and unity. Conflicting parties must come to appreciate and respect each other and their views and opinions, and agree to disagree as brothers and sisters.


I have presented a number of important suggestions to Secretary of State George Shultz and Vice President Bush, and to members of the United States Congress of both political parties. As you know, sanctions have been enacted into law, and now we must turn our attention to developing new initiatives in support of Black and other South Africans against the system of apartheid and to the special needs of the front-line countries in the southern region who are almost totally dependent on South Africa.


I went to South Africa in a spirit of nonviolence and reconciliation. My goal for the future is for the King Center to be able to help find solutions to the numerous problems confronting all citizens of South Africa, as well as the region. And last year, the Federal Holiday Commission called upon governments and liberation movements to cease all acts of violence and war, if only for one day on Monday, January 20, 1986, in honor of Martin’s life and work.


The results were more than we had hoped for. According to the reports we received, only two nations violated our call for a day of peace. Those two were Ethiopia and Nicaragua.


I’ve already written to the heads of most of the governments in the world, requesting once again a day of peace without violence on Monday, January 19, 1987, which is the third Monday and the official holiday for the second celebration of our nation for Martin Luther King Jr.


We must find a way to end the daily violence against innocent men, women, and children. We have tried to provide some new and hopefully creative ways to inspire and challenge Americans and peoples around the world to celebrate Martin’s birthday — a legal national holiday — appropriately.


On Monday, January 19, we intend to have the original Liberty Bell rung in Philadelphia at 12 noon, its tone amplified and broadcast to the 50 states where replicas of the original bell provided to the states by former president Harry Truman will be rung in ceremonies sponsored by state and local commissions and around the world.


We also urge all Americans to fly the American flag, as we did last year for the first celebration of the holiday. We call upon our states to enact legal holiday legislation to complement the federal act and to establish state and local holiday commissions. We call on businesses to observe the holiday and to promote through their advertising ‑‑ promote it through their advertising promotion and product sales.


We call on public and private schools to conduct teach-ins on Martin and to establish formalized instruction on his life and work. We’re calling on youth and young adults, college and university students, to make up for a generation lost to social activism and to once again rise up to the challenge of nonviolence and the imperatives of peace and justice.


We challenge them to once again be on the cutting edge of the new challenges and opportunities which face their generation. Over 2 million men, women, and children signed the Living the Dream Pledge last year and thus made a personal commitment to the tenets of King nonviolence.



Segment 3: Hopes and plans for future celebrations (starting at 18:09)

AMANDA: In this final segment, we’ll bring you the conclusion of Coretta Scott King’s speech, given in October 1986. In this portion of her talk, she shares her hopes and dreams for the future of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Here are her words, presented almost 40 years ago.

MRS. KING: (audio clip) On Monday, January 20, 1986, America began an exciting and new tradition of personal, national, and international dimensions in the celebration of a legal national holiday in honor of Martin. This holiday is so unique that many of us are not certain about just how we should celebrate it.


And that’s because to try to interpret the meaning of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life is still something that remains to be done in its completeness. Perhaps it may take another 20, 25, maybe longer than 25, 50 years perhaps.


An important part of our challenge for 1987 remains that of making the national holiday a truly all-American holiday, a day that will involve Americans of all races, cultures, religions, politics, and stations in life. Martin gave his life that all might be free. The civil rights movement that he led gave fresh emphasis to the timelessness of our ideals and inspired countless millions around the world.


On Martin’s holiday, we celebrate those unsung heroes and heroines, not only Blacks but of all races and religions, who struggled, suffered, persevered, and helped to change our nation for the better down through the ages.


The extension of the Federal Holiday Commission provides us with the opportunity to fully institutionalize the national holiday in honor of Martin, and in so doing, we institutionalize his philosophy and strategy of nonviolence and his deeper meaning, so that future generations will learn and know that they, too, have a responsibility to act.


On the occasion of this holiday, I want young people of all races, religions and cultures to be able to answer that he was a drum major for justice and peace, and he was a drum major for love and for righteousness, and to really understand what that means. Understanding means internalizing.


With the help of people of goodwill and certainly with Christian people and people who are believers, whatever their faith may be, we can achieve the goal. May we rise up and meet the challenge and face a new opportunity to make our nation truly the just and democratic nation that I believe it was intended to be. If we do that, our children will rise up and call us blessed.


Thank you for giving me the privilege of sharing this information with you and hope that we can have many more years of working together to fulfill the dream that we all share, and in so doing, our own lives will be enhanced and fulfilled accordingly. Thank you.





Segment 4: Closing (starting at 23:26)

AMANDA: We are so grateful for the life and leadership of Coretta Scott King, and we’re honored that she spoke at BJC’s Religious Liberty Conference in 1986, to share her experience and her dreams for the future.

And a few notes to follow up on her international work for peace: After the fall of apartheid in the 1990s, the King Center trained 300,000 new South African voters on the principles of nonviolence in preparation for the country’s first multiracial election.

You heard Mrs. King share in this speech that an attempt to connect with Nelson Mandela did not work out, but she later did stand with him in Johannesburg after he was elected president of South Africa. I encourage you to read more about Mrs. King’s incredible life of service in our show notes.

And if you’re interested in other presentations from this 1986 event, we shared a speech from former congresswoman Barbara Jordan in episode 7 of this season, and we’ll also link to that in our show notes.

That brings us to the close of this episode of Respecting Religion. To learn more about Coretta Scott King and the MLK holiday, visit our website at RespectingReligion.org for show notes and a transcript of this program.

This episode of Respecting Religion is produced and edited by Cherilyn Guy with editorial assistance from Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons.

Learn more about our work at BJC, defending faith freedom for all, by visiting our website at BJConline.org. And if you want to contact the show, email us at [email protected]. We’re also on social media at BJContheHill, and you can follow me on X, which used to be called Twitter, @AmandaTylerBJC.

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