At age 6, Martin Luther King Jr. was jarred when a parent of a white friend said the boys could no longer play together because he was black. Another time, King's father, a minister, was driving a car when a white policeman pulled him over for no obvious reason. "Listen, boy," he began, only to be cut off when the Rev. King pointed to his son in the passenger seat. "That is a boy. I am a man."
At age 14, King experienced a similar incident. While returning from a school debating competition, the driver threatened to call the police if he didn't move to the back of the bus.
King felt the pangs of racial bigotry growing up in Atlanta – and they stoked a fire within him. The son and grandson of pastors in Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, King pursued theological studies, culminating in a doctorate from Boston University in 1955. Late that year, he led a nonviolent bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., to protest Rosa Parks's arrest for refusing to move from whites-only seats at the front of a city bus. The boycott lasted 382 days.
In 1957 King was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where he continued his civil rights activism, eventually leading a mass protest in Birmingham, Ala., over unfair hiring practices and customer discrimination. In 1963, he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 250,000. It predated passage of the seminal 1964 Civil Rights Act by a year.
King was unbowed by arrests, assaults, and a bombing of his home meant to thwart his cause. In 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Four years later, while preparing to lead a march of striking garbage collectors in Memphis, Tenn., he was assassinated on a motel balcony.
History of MLK Day
1973: Illinois is the first state to adopt the holiday.
1983: The initiative receives a lift from major civil rights marches in Washington in 1982 and 1983, when the bill finally passes. But the holiday is moved from Jan. 15 (King's birthday) to the third Monday in January to avoid other observances.
1986: Federal holiday observance begins.
1992: Arizona, whose governor rescinded the holiday in 1987, adopts it in the face of economic boycotts.
1993: Some version of the holiday is held in all 50 states for first time.
1999: New Hampshire becomes the last state to grant paid-holiday status.
2008: Work will begin in the spring on a MLK Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, scheduled to open in 2009.
Is the civil rights movement still important to blacks?
Yes: 60 percent (up from 57 percent in 1993)
No: 35 percent
How often blacks say they face frequent discrimination in:
Applying for jobs: 67 percent
Renting an apartment or buying a house: 65 percent
Dining out or shopping: 50 percent
Applying to college: 43 percent
How well blacks say they get along with whites:
Very well: 20 percent
Pretty well: 49 percent
Not too well: 20 percent
Not at all well: 4 percent
Percentage of blacks who'd like to see:
More neighborhood integration: 62 percent (versus 44 percent of whites)
More school integration: 56 percent (versus 23 percent of whites)
African-American firsts in post-King era:
1983 – Astronaut in space: Guion Bluford
1989 – Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Colin Powell (1989-93)
1989 – Governor: Douglas Wilder of Virginia
1993 – Nobel Prize for Literature: Toni Morrison
2000 – Billionaire: Robert Johnson, owner of Black Entertainment Television
Newsmakers whom blacks rate as a good influence:
Oprah Winfrey: 87 percent
Bill Cosby: 85 percent
Barack Obama: 76 percent
Colin Powell: 70 percent
Tyra Banks: 68 percent
Jesse Jackson: 68 percent
Tiger Woods: 67 percent
Russell Simmons, hip hop entrepreneur: 67 percent
Al Sharpton: 65 percent