30 Years of MLK Day: What We’ve Gained and What We’ve Lost 

Since the enactment of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, African Americans have much to celebrate and still much more work to do.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial as seen on Dec. 1, 2011, in Washington, D.C.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial as seen on Dec. 1, 2011, in Washington, D.C. KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

As the United States celebrates the 30th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we take a look at some of the gains and losses of the civil rights movement since the holiday’s enactment. America elected its first black president in 2008, but the assailment of unarmed blacks, and efforts to repeal voting rights and affirmative action, show that Barack Obama’s election may have been a pyrrhic victory. The journey continues.

In her 1972 award-winning essay, “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?” Alice Walker said it best: “Because we live, it [the civil rights movement] can never die.”

Gain: A Salute to Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1986, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first observed as a federal holiday, though President Ronald Reagan initially signed a bill to create the holiday in 1983. All 50 states didn’t observe the holiday until 2000, when South Carolina finally recognized the holiday. Three states—Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas—also celebrate the birth of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on the very same day

Loss: Cast Your Vote … or Not

Enacted in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was one of the most important achievements of the civil rights movement. But in the infamous Shelby v. Holder ruling in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted a key provision that had given the act its true heft. Since then, several states have passed—or are attempting to pass—laws that restrict access to the ballot box, especially for people of color.

Gain: Black Faces in High Places