King, a black clergyman, activist Nobel Peace Prize recipient and leader in the civil rights movement, was assassinated in 1968, but his voice and his message have become immortal.
The nation has observed a holiday in King's name since 1986. Local commemorations include an annual learning event today at San Juan College and a special celebration planned for this weekend.
"Not only is this a federal holiday, but part of the day is to let people know what King's message is and how it still affects people today," said Marcia Sterling-Penn, student activities director at the college.
King lived in a tumultuous time. The nation was tainted with prejudice and discrimination. But King, clinging to a philosophy of nonviolent resistance, stood up for civil rights.
He led the black boycott of segregated city buses in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, and spearheaded the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where he delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech at age 34.
At age 35, King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He was assassinated at age 39.
In his speech, King predicted a day when people would "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
That message still is needed, Sterling-Penn said.
"We gained from him and the movement he created and built, and we need to keep going forward," she said.
During today's commemoration, students and the public can walk through the Learning Commons from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to view displays portraying King's life story and the history of civil rights. The college also will show some of King's famous speeches on a screen.
Saturday's events are co-sponsored by the college, Ideal Baptist Church and the San Juan County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The keynote speaker is Capt. Gail Harris, a retired U.S. Naval officer. She was the highest ranking black female serving in the Navy when she retired in December 2001. She lives in Durango, Colo.
Harris said the holiday should celebrate a broader range of civil rights successes.
"What I believe is that the emphasis should be less on a black problem, a black celebration," she said. "That it not what Martin Luther King Jr. was about. It should be I have a dream' day. Every family should sit down and discuss what is the highest dream we can have for our family. Don't narrow it down to something that's about African Americans. It's about everyone."
Saturday's program also will include poetry, singers, rappers and gospel choirs.
Alysa Landry: firstname.lastname@example.org