Martin Luther King, Jr./Wyoming Equality Day falls on the third Monday in January. It marks a time of remembrance and reflection on the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his relentless quest for equality, human rights and respect for human dignity. King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in the segregated south on January 15, 1929. By the time he was in high school, he had begun to hone his skill as a public speaker. In 1944, at the age of 15, he was on the debate team and winning oratorial contests. By the time he was 26, he had earned two bachelor’s degrees and a Ph.D. degree in systematic theology from Boston University.
King went on to become a Baptist church minister and civil rights activist. He was also a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The SCLC helped to coordinate local organizations as they fought for Black equality. It also sponsored voter registration drives and job creation programs. King sent out regular letters with updates on SCLC activities and fundraising requests.
King took inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi’s approach to agitating for change saying, “The Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence is the only logical and moral approach to the solution of the race problem in the United States.” In 1955, King led the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott – a social protest campaign against the policy of racial segregation on Montgomery public transportation. The boycott received the attention of the national press and King suddenly became the very visible face of the civil rights movement. Then, in ensuing years, he led marches and demonstrations for voting rights, desegregation, labor and fair housing rights.
In addition to his work as a civil rights leader and minister, King became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. On April 15, 1967, he led a march and rally of 125,000 people against the war at the United Nations in New York City. King said, “As long as the war in Vietnam goes on, the more difficult it will be to implement the programs that will deal with the problems that Negro people confront in our country…”
King faced animosity from the very beginning. His activism earned him harassment, threats and physical violence. In 1956 a bomb was thrown onto the front porch of his home, and he was stabbed in the chest in 1958. King was jailed repeatedly as he participated in nonviolent protests, demonstrations and even prayer vigils. Despite this, King continued to speak out. His skill as an orator was legendary. He inspired others with the power of his speeches and his pen. His “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C, and his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” are studied even today by students all across the world. In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role as the leader of the American movement for nonviolent resistance to racial prejudice.
Tragically, King’s life was cut short. In 1968, at the age of 39, he was assassinated. His murder led to race riots in major cities across the U.S. At the University of Wyoming, campus minister Reverend Dick Putney and some students organized a silent vigil in front of the student union in King’s honor. According to Putney’s remembrances in an American Heritage Center oral history interview, only about 20 students showed up. Soon “a couple of pickups with guys with cowboy hats and beers in one hand and a couple of long guns came and just harassed” the group. Although the vigil-goers hoped that campus police would arrive and intervene, they never appeared. Instead, the harassers eventually lost interest when they ran out of beer.
The path to establishing a day in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s honor was long and circuitous. In the 1970s, King’s reputation as a “trouble-maker” and “agitator” among the white majority still prevailed. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, faced an uphill battle convincing federal legislators to designate a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day federal holiday. President Ronald Regan eventually signed a bill honoring King in 1983 and by 1986 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day began being celebrated at the federal level.
It was another fourteen years before all fifty states officially recognized the day. In Wyoming, the acknowledgement came in 1990 after nearly ten years of tireless work by State Senator Harriett Elizabeth “Liz” Byrd. Even then, the recognition was a compromise, as the holiday’s name was amended to include the words “Wyoming Equality Day”. Legislators at the time argued against naming a day for King, pointing out that King was one of many civil rights activists, and that Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were not honored with holidays in their names. In 1989, Governor Mike Sullivan signed an executive order declaring January 15, 1990, to be Martin Luther King, Jr. Equality Day. Then, during the 1990 Wyoming congressional session, the bill was passed making the third Monday in January an official Martin Luther King, Jr./Wyoming Equality Day state holiday.
In 2002, the University of Wyoming Student Affairs Office launched an event known as the Martin Luther King, Jr. “Days of Dialogue”. The goals of “Days of Dialogue” included providing a positive environment for Black-identified students to celebrate their culture and encouraging individuals to engage with racial justice issues. From 2002 through 2021 the “Days of Dialogue” were held during the third week of January, coinciding with Martin Luther King, Jr. /Wyoming Equality Day. Regular features of the event’s programming included a march from the Albany County Courthouse to the UW Union, speeches by activists, townhall meetings and panel discussions.
If you are interested in learning more, the American Heritage Center has six collections that contain materials related to Martin Luther King, Jr. The Jack Casserly papers include a short audio tape interview with King. The Richard S. Putney Oral History includes a brief remembrance of Reverend Dick Putney’s experience leading a silent vigil at the University of Wyoming honoring King after his assassination. The Lewis L. Gould papers include fundraising letters from King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The University of Wyoming Multicultural Affairs records contain material related to the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. “Days of Dialogue” held on the UW campus each January. The Harriett Elizabeth Byrd papers include materials related to establishing Martin Luther King, Jr./Wyoming Equality Day as a Wyoming holiday. Finally, the Michael J. Sullivan papers contain documents related to Wyoming’s official recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr./Wyoming Equality Day in 1990.
Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.