Recognizing MLK Day

4 min read

| By Carol Brennan |

The third Monday of January is a U.S. federal holiday to commemorate both the life and the mission of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968). The leading figure of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s, King became a beacon of hope for Black Americans of his era and set the template for future generations to push for change through peaceful, nonviolent demonstration, backed up by deliberate court challenges, to ensure that all Americans live in peace, dignity, and security.

Gale In Context: Biography features thousands of essays on political leaders, religious figures, and ordinary Americans called to the social justice movement. For the 2024 King holiday, we’d like to highlight some names in Gale In Context: Biography—many of them recent additions—of those whose lives or spirits intersected with King or his vision. Foremost among them is Esther Cooper Jackson (1917–2022), a Fisk University graduate who, in the 1940s, served as executive director of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, an organization whose voter-registration strategy was adopted by King and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In February 1968, Jackson organized an event at Carnegie Hall in New York City to commemorate the centenary of the birth of W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963). King spoke at that event, which marked the last public speech he delivered before he was assassinated in April at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

With King in Memphis, the day he was killed was James Orange (1942–2008), a Baptist minister, labor organizer, and SCLC project director. Orange was infamously arrested near Selma, Alabama, in 1965 with hundreds of students—an incident that triggered the march on Selma. Also present in Memphis on April 4, 1968, was firebrand journalist Earl Caldwell (born ca. 1941), who was in the city to report on King’s efforts to help striking sanitation workers. Caldwell was also staying at the Lorraine Motel and was the only reporter at the scene of the tragedy. He later became the plaintiff in a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court case when he refused to divulge the names of his sources to U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents who were intrigued by his New York Times coverage of the Black Panther Party and its activities. One of the most significant Americans to enter into King’s orbit was Mamie Till Mobley (1921–2003), the mother of slain teenager Emmett Till (1941–1955). Mobley’s courageous insistence on an open-casket funeral for her son, and to allow Black media outlets to publish photographs, has consistently been cited as the spark that ignited the Montgomery bus boycott three months later.

It was another historic day for Montgomery when the Alabama capital elected its first Black mayor, Steven L. Reed (born 1974), a Democrat who took office in November 2019. Reed’s name is one of hundreds added annually to Gale In Context: Biography, a singular resource for students and educators searching for comprehensive information linked to the King holiday and Black History Month. Recently added trailblazers include Chicago’s dynamic new mayor, Brandon Johnson (born 1976), and Maxwell Frost (born 1997), the Florida Democrat who in 2023 became the youngest member of the U.S. House of Representatives when he was sworn in to the 118th U.S. Congress. Two other Generation Z lawmakers recently featured in Gale In Context: Biography are Justin Jones (born 1995) and Justin Pearson (born 1995), both Democrats elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives whose joint expulsion for taking part in a lawful protest in 2023 sparked outrage.

Thirty years ago, when Gale began publishing its landmark serial Contemporary Black Biography—whose regularly updated index of names is easily accessed through Gale In Context: Biography—one of the early entrants was Broadway visionary George C. Wolfe (born 1954), who directed the 2023 film Rustin, the acclaimed biopic about the heroic life of Bayard Rustin (1912–1987), a key figure in the SCLC and the organizer of King’s monumental 1963 march on Washington. A long list of names associated with the film are profiled in Gale In Context: Biography—from its lead, the actor Colman Domingo (born 1969), to the figure played by CCH Pounder (born 1952) in the film, Rustin’s fellow march on Washington organizer Anna Hedgeman (1899–1990). 

About the Author

Carol Brennan has been writing biographical entries for Cengage/Gale since 1993. If she’s not writing, she is either at yoga or walking her dachshund. Carol consumes an alarming volume of podcasts and audiobooks weekly.

Leave a Comment