Americans celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day Monday amid a global pandemic that has forced many events to be moved online and at a time when the country is facing threats of political violence surrounding the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
Every year on the third Monday in January, Americans honor the slain civil rights leader who in the 1950s and 1960s organized non-violent protests of Southern segregation, the struggle for Black equality, and voting rights.
The holiday traditionally features people commemorating King's work by participating in community service projects. However, both the pandemic and warnings of violence in cities across the nation have affected how the day can be marked this year.
The holiday comes just two days before Biden’s inauguration in Washington, where up to 25,000 National Guard troops are expected to provide security after last week’s violence at the U.S. Capitol where a pro-Trump mob stormed the building, leaving five people dead.
Federal officials have said some of those involved in the riot were white supremacists. They have also warned of the potential for further political violence in Washington and at state capitols across the country.
Washington’s National Mall is closed to the general public through the inauguration, and the city’s public transportation system has been dramatically limited because of the threats ahead of Inauguration Day.
Community service projects are still taking place in the Washington area, but organizers are avoiding off-limit areas and are mindful of social distancing guidelines to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The community of Reston, Virginia, is holding its 36th annual celebration of King’s life with such projects as cleaning up litter and making bag lunches for those in shelters for the homeless.
Other Washington groups are taking their tributes to King online. Washington’s Folger Theatre will hold its annual tribute to King virtually this year, featuring readings from King’s speeches while the National Museum of African American History and Culture has arranged a free virtual music concert.
In Atlanta, Georgia, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, which includes the house where King was born, is also celebrating the holiday virtually. It has been closed since mid-March because of the pandemic.
In Montgomery, Alabama, where King once was a preacher, the Civil Rights Memorial Center held a virtual event Friday to commemorate King’s legacy. Ahead of the event, the director of the center, Tafeni English, said in a statement, “In light of the events of this past week, it is clear we have much work to do to combat white supremacy in this country and ensure that the promise of the civil rights movement that Dr. King committed his life to is fully realized.”
For King, a key to success for the civil rights movement was its strategy of non-violent protest, which he championed as an alternative to armed uprising. King has said he was inspired by the teachings of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi.
The movement was tested in places like Birmingham, Alabama, where police used attack dogs and fire hoses to disperse protesting school children and in Selma, Alabama, where a 1965 march is remembered as “Bloody Sunday” because police attacked protesters.
Just weeks after the peaceful 1963 March on Washington, which drew 250,000 people, both Black and white, tragedy struck Birmingham, Alabama. A bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church during Sunday school classes, killing four young girls and injuring 23 others.
Some African Americans wanted to retaliate, including members of the militant group known as the Black Panthers.
However, the steady and peaceful non-violent movement held its course and reached a milestone in 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act outlawing racial segregation in public places and King won the Nobel Peace Prize.
The following year, the Voting Rights Act banned practices that were used to keep Blacks from participating in elections.
King’s own life ended in violence when in 1968, at the age of 39, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee where he was supporting striking sanitation workers.