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American Holidays I

Updated on March 6, 2011

Martin Luther King, JR. Day

In 1986, the U.S. Congress made a new holiday. It said that the third Monday in January would be a federal holiday to honor the nation’s greatest civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr.

King was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. Like his father, he became a Baptist preacher. His first position was at a church in Montgomery, Alabama. It was there that he was chosen to lead a protest against the local bus company. The buses did not allow blacks to sit in certain seats. King led a boycott of the buses. He urged Montgomery’s black people not to use the buses. Finally, the bus rule was changed. Blacks could sit in any seats they wanted. The Montgomery boycott was King’s first great victory as a civil rights leader. He led many more protests against the unequal treatment of black people.

King made clear that he believed in nonviolent protest. Blacks, he said, should object to bad laws and unfair treatment. But they should never use violence to get what they wanted. He, like many other civil rights leaders, often went to jail for breaking the law. Yet he always made his followers act peacefully, even when they were sprayed with fire hoses, bitten by attack dogs, and clubbed by police officers. In 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership of the civil rights movement.

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. The January holiday keeps alive the memory of a great champion of equal rights for all people.

Presidents’ Day

The third Monday in February is a holiday to honor two great presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

George Washington (born in Virginia on February 22, 1732) first made a name for himself as a soldier in the French and Indian War. He later spoke out against England’s treatment of the colonies. In 1775, Congress chose Washington to command the army. He led it to victory after many defeats and hardships.

Washington went back to private life, but he knew his country still needed him. He served as president of the meeting that wrote the Constitution. Then, in 1789, he was elected the first president of the United States. He served two terms before retiring to his Mount Vernon home. There he died in 1799.

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 in a Kentucky log cabin. Raised in a pioneer family, Lincoln had little time for school. He moved with his parents to Indiana and later to Illinois. There he began his career as a lawyer and a politician.

Abraham Lincoln, who famously said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time”, had several nicknames.

When Lincoln was young, his neighbors called him ‘Honest Abe’ because of his sincerity and character. Later, when he became president, he was called ‘Tycoon’, a title originally used in Japan to refer to the military commander. Lincoln was called so because of his role in keeping the country united during Civil War. The two most famous nicknames for Lincoln were ‘Liberator’ and ‘Emancipator’, for his efforts in freeing millions of slaves in America.

In the 1850s, Lincoln became a national figure when he spoke out against the spread of slavery. He was elected president in 1860, but his election caused states in the South to leave the Union. Lincoln spent his term as president bringing the country back together through the bloody Civil War. Less than a week after the war ended, Lincoln was killed while watching a play.

On Presidents’ Day we salute the “father of our country” and the man who held it together during its worst crisis.

Memorial Day

“Memorial Day” is the second name for the holiday that is celebrated on the last Monday in May. Its first name was “Decoration Day.” The idea of the holiday was to decorate the graves of soldiers who had died in the Civil War.

No one knows the exact number of Americans—from both the North and the South—who died in the Civil War. At least 600,000 either were killed in combat or died of disease while in the army. Fresh graves had to be dug constantly to bury the dead young men from the Union and Confederate armies.

In 1866, the year after the Civil War ended, people in Waterloo, New York, began placing flowers and small flags on the graves of Northern soldiers. That same year, people in Columbus, Mississippi, began placing flowers on the graves of both Northern and Southern soldiers who were buried nearby. In 1868, a general in the Northern army, John A. Logan, said that May 30 should be set aside as a day to honor dead Union soldiers.

After World War I, Decoration Day became Memorial Day. Instead of a day to decorate the graves of those who fell in the Civil War, it became a holiday to remember all who gave their lives fighting for their country. Today, Americans salute the men and women who died fighting in all U.S. wars: the two World Wars, Korean War, Vietnam War, and Desert Storm as well as the earlier wars. In 1971, Congress changed the Memorial Day holiday from May 30 to the last Monday in May.


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    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Martin Luther King was a great civil rights leader but to say he was the greatest, I think, demeans others who went before him and paved the way.