01/19/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 03/20/2015 05:59 EDT

Martin Luther King Jr. Day given new meaning in post-Ferguson U.S.

It was more than 50 years ago but Rev. Willie Bolden remembers clearly the day he first heard Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a speech about civil rights — and he remembers clearly the goosebumps he got listening to the powerful orator.

"It doesn’t seem human. This man was awesome," Bolden recalls thinking to himself as he sat in the packed church in Savannah, Ga., in 1961.

Bolden and King met that day, and King later invited the young 22-year-old bellhop — who could work at the Mango hotel but not stay there because of the colour of his skin — to Atlanta to work with him. Bolden agreed, and hasn’t stopped working since.

While en route to an elementary school in Atlanta on Friday for a talk about his friend King, the 76-year-old paused to share some memories with CBC News. He also said that this year's Martin Luther King Jr. Day, observed Monday, has added significance in the wake of the anger and protests, sometimes violent ones, that erupted nationwide following the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., last summer.

"We need to honour it more," Bolden said about King's legacy. "Because that's what Dr. King was about. He was about saving lives and saving young people and about non-violence."

"When you think about Dr. King and the non-violent movement, it is more prevalent today than it was then," said Bolden.​

There were riots in Ferguson after the officer Darren Wilson wasn't indicted, and violent incidents in other cities across the U.S., but there were many peaceful demonstrations that went on for weeks. Brown's death, as well as the death of Eric Garner, another black man who died after being put in a chokehold by a police officer in New York City, sparked a nationwide dialogue about civil rights, racism and police behaviour.

It gives a different backdrop to this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day than in other years and those marking the holiday say it's a good day for all Americans to reflect on these issues.

Progress still to be made

Dale Charles, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's branch in Little Rock, Ark., said in an interview that he feels some of the gains that King fought and died for are being eroded.

"We still have a long ways yet to go in some of the things he was fighting for," said Charles. "For a moment we had them, and there are people working to make sure that they don't continue."

King encouraged people to judge each other by the content of one's character, not skin colour, and not enough Americans are following that advice, he said.

"We have begun to see, in my opinion, a more divided country. After all these years of the struggle and the fight to make things more equitable, we see people who refuse to recognize that," he said.

Arkansas is one of a handful of states that not only recognizes Martin Luther King Jr. Day but Robert E. Lee Day, marking the birthday of the Confederate army commander during the Civil War, a war over fought over the issue of slavery.

King was born on Jan.15, Lee on Jan.19. The King holiday is always the third Monday in January which means this year the two occasions are being observed simultaneously. Charles said the focus in Arkansas is on King, though, and he was unaware of any events to celebrate Lee. Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Virginia and Alabama also observe Lee’s birthday.​

Some states have had tumultuous histories with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, including Arizona, which lost out on hosting the Super Bowl in 1993 and all the benefits that big event entails, because of the state's failure to recognize the King holiday. Arizona did mark it as a state holiday beginning in 1992, but that was after the NFL decided to move the title game to California.

Long fight to get holiday

Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been a federal holiday since 1986 when the law that President Ronald Reagan signed in three years earlier took effect. The campaign to get a holiday in honour of King began almost immediately after his assassination in 1968 and was led by his wife, Coretta Scott King.

Steve Klein, through his work with The King Center, was part of that campaign. He remembers the day King’s widow and musician Stevie Wonder delivered two truckloads of petitions with six million signatures to Congress in 1982. The effort had failed in Congress many times before but was finally successful in 1983.

"It was such a thrill," Klein said about the day Reagan signed the law.

In the following years individual states made it a holiday, too, and Klein said every year the number of employers in the private sector who give their staff the day off is growing.

What happened in Ferguson put a focus on the treatment of African-Americans, Klein said, and it’s provided an opportunity to talk about King’s beliefs, particularly with young people. Staff from the King Center recently did a workshop in Ferguson.

"There is a dialogue beginning in Ferguson on non-violence and using Dr. King’s philosophy, methods and strategies to deal with issues of police-community violence," said Klein. "Hopefully things are going to get a lot better there and in many other cities this year as a result of the increasing national dialogue on bringing non-violent action and programs into police departments and into communities all across America."

King's former colleague Rev. Bolden said many of the protests across the U.S. in recent months were led by young people, who were following the playbook from the 1960s civil rights movement.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Bolden said he will reflect on his personal relationship with King, and then, think about what's next.

"What can I do at 76 to help maintain his legacy and to fight against racism, poverty, which is still alive and doing well in this country? What is it that I can do to continue fighting the way he would be fighting if he were here today?"