In recent years, there has been a disturbing trend among a certain demographic to refer to Martin Luther King Jr. Day as “James Earl Ray Day.” A recent Facebook search reveals that this trend is still alive and well today.
James Earl Ray is the disturbed man who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. He pleaded guilty to murder on the advice of his attorney in order to avoid a jury trial. A guilty verdict returned by a jury trial would have made him eligible for the death sentence in Tennessee. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Ray tried unsuccessfully to have his guilty plea reversed, as he later claimed to be at the center of a vast conspiracy. He escaped from prison on June 10, 1977 and was recaptured three days later. His sentence was extended by one year for the escape. James Earl Ray died on April 23, 1998 due to kidney disease and liver failure brought on by complications from hepatitis C.
While the trend to refer to Martin Luther King Jr. Day as “James Earl Ray Day” started with white supremacist groups in the United States, in recent years the trend has grown to include people from all walks of life. At least, however, this form of ignorant protest is relatively harmless. There have been violent protests against the national holiday as recently as 2011.
In 2011, Kevin Harpham, a white supremacist with ties to the National Alliance, attempted to detonate an IED along the route of a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial march in Spokane, Washington. The device was rigged with homemade shrapnel that had been treated with rat poison to prevent wounds from coagulating. Harpham was apprehended on March 9, 2011 and sentenced to 32 years in prison in December of that year.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as an American federal holiday in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan. The holiday is observed on the third Monday of each year and celebrates the birth of the iconic civil rights leader. Even though Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, the official celebration is dictated by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which ensures that state and federal workers receive three-day weekends for certain holidays.
When the holiday was first created, many states resisted celebrating it, creating combined holidays, such as Robert E. Lee Day in Alabama, or Lee-Jackson-King Day in Virginia (combining the birthdays of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Martin Luther King Jr.). Even in New Hampshire, it was called Civil Rights Day until 1999 when a state legislature voted to rename the state holiday in line with federal observances. That made 2000 the first year that all 50 states observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a nation.
In conjunction with the philosophy and worldview of Martin Luther King Jr., the holiday has also been transformed into a National Day of Service. The King Holiday and Service Act was created by Senator Harris Wofford and Congressman John Lewis in 1993. The Act was passed into Federal law in 1994 by President Bill Clinton. Essentially, the legislation presents a challenge to every American citizen to volunteer somehow in honor of Dr. King’s philosophies. It’s worth noting that the only other official National Day of Service in the United States is September 11.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is also celebrated in other countries, albeit unofficially. Toronto, Canada recognizes the holiday, although there are no government closures because of it. In the Netherlands, a tribute dinner is held in Wassenaar every year since 1986. The Dr. Martin Luther King Tribute and Dinner is held on the last Sunday in January and serves as a lead into Black History Month in February.
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