Each year on the third Monday of January, Americans celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This federal holiday marks the birthday (January 15) of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King was a key leader in the American civil rights movement. For example, he urged people to protest in nonviolent ways against racial discrimination.

But what exactly are civil rights? Civil rights are personal rights that are protected and guaranteed by law. Some civil rights are listed in the United States Constitution, while others are identified in various federal laws.

Some examples of civil rights include:

  • freedom of speech
  • voting
  • freedom of religion
  • protection against illegal discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability, age, sex and religion
  • freedom of the press

The phrase “civil rights” comes from the Latin words ius civis, which means “rights of citizens.” Civil rights are considered universal human rights that all people should enjoy, regardless of whether these rights are expressly set forth in written laws.

Most democracies have written laws, such as the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, which protect civil rights. However, most people believe civil rights are natural rights. In other words, civil rights come from the laws of nature — not as gifts from governments.

Civil rights haven’t always been granted equally to all people throughout history. For example, the right to vote in the U.S. once only extended to men. In addition, it was once legal to discriminate against persons just because they were African Americans.

Throughout history, brave people have often stepped forward to challenge such injustices. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was one such person. His hard work on behalf of African Americans was an important part of the civil rights movement in the United States.

Dr. King made many important speeches in which he urged people to protest in nonviolent ways. He also encouraged local, state and federal governments to enact laws to eliminate discrimination. Although he was assassinated before he saw major changes, his efforts were instrumental in the civil rights laws that were eventually passed.


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  1. I sure hope all of the MC students take the time to read the wonder and watch this video. I really like how the wonder pulls the importance of this historic day along with the journey of MLK. Excellent job and the links are powerful also.

    • Thanks for encouraging your “MC” students to visit today’s Wonder, Maria! We hope all of our Wonder Friends are having a great day today and taking some time to reflect on Dr. King and his important contributions to the civil rights movement. :-)

  2. Dear Wonderopolis,
    That was in interesting wonder! I think tomorrow’s wonder is about outer space. (Can you please make it about outer space? I’ve been guessing this for like a month and it hasn’t happened yet PLEASE!!!!!) Thanks! And a shout out to my BFFS Katie, Isabel, Hailee, and Eleni!
    Paige 😉

    • Hello, Paige! We sure do appreciate your great attitude and enthusiasm for wanting a new Wonder of the Day® about space! Have you visited all of the awesome past Wonders we have about space yet? Here is a WHOLE category of them (14 Wonders in all so far): http://wonderopolis.org/category/space/. Happy WONDERing! :-)

    • We’re so glad you stopped by Wonderopolis today, Chiu! Thank you for letting us know you enjoy learning new things here! Have a WONDERful day! :-)

  3. ALohah Wonderopolis!

    You can listen to I have a dream video on youtube. My Language Arts teacher is making us memorize the bulk of it for today. I really like this website a lot.

    • Thanks for sharing your comment with us today, Alice! We really appreciate you letting us know that you visited this Wonder of the Day® and that you are learning Dr. King’s famous speech! :-)

    • That IS really cute, Alice! Young kids say the cutest things sometimes as they try to mimic the language of older kids and grown-ups! Thanks so much for sharing your personal connection to this Wonder! :-)

  4. Hi, this is Mukund from Mrs. Caplin’s class. I learned that civil rights are personal rights that are protected and guaranteed by law. I also learned that some examples of civil rights include: freedom of speech, voting, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and protection against illegal discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability, age, and religion. I really liked how the video connected to Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I learned that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is always on the 3rd Monday of January. I also learned that Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was January 15. I learned that Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 and died on April 4, 1968. I had to use context clues to figure out what enact meant. It means to make or act. I like how you connected this wonder with Martin Luther King Jr. day. I really liked this wonder.

    • Hello, Mukund! Your comment is AWESOME! Thank you for sharing all the new things you learned about Dr. King and civil rights, and also for letting us know you really liked exploring this Wonder! :-)

  5. This was an amazing wonder. I thought that the video was very neat and I liked the links. I didn’t know that every year on the third Monday of January, Americans celebrate Martan Luther King Jr. day and it marks Martin Luther’s birthday. I have heard the term civil rights before but I wasn’t sure what it meant, and this wonder taught me that a civil right is a personal right that is protected by law.This was a great wonder and I learned a lot.

    • We’re so glad you learned about civil rights and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by visiting this Wonder, Olivia! Thank you for taking the time to leave us such a great comment to let us know about your visit! :-)

  6. The stories you produce are perfect for my goals of using engaging multimedia to expand the vocabulary of my students. Thanks for making teaching a little bit easier!

    • Hello, Tammy! Thanks so much for your awesome comment! We appreciate your feedback and how you share Wonderopolis with your students. They are super lucky to have a teacher like you who encourages them to WONDER! :-)

    • Hi, Logan! Thank you for sharing your thoughts about the video for this Wonder. We can tell from your comment that you are a very caring person with a great big heart! It is sad how African Americans were treated, but thanks to courageous civil rights leaders like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., laws have been passed that protect all people from discrimination.

  7. This was an awesome topic. I was just wondering who killed Martin Luther King Jr.? I agree with those four boys, they should be able to eat at the best restaurant if they had the money just take the money and give them their food…and this is coming from a 5th grader!!!!!

  8. Who are those people with the big caps? Why did they treat people so bad? I wanted to know why they thought that black people were not like whites? They might have been black, but still we are all the same, and we are all brothers and sisters? Do you know who the people in the caps were?

    • We can tell you have a super big heart, Yamel, and that you see the world as a place where everyone should be appreciated for who they are as individuals, not treated poorly because they are a certain religion, or have a certain skin color. We are SO PROUD of you for that! Unfortunately, some people in the world have a hard time accepting others who might be different than they are. We feel it might be best for you to talk to your teacher or one of your parents about the people in the big caps. They might be able to better answer your questions and address your concerns. We think you are a WONDERful Wonder Friend! Thank you for visiting Wonderopolis and for sharing your feelings about civil rights! :-)

    • Hello, Carolyn! We are really proud of you and our other Wonder Friends who are WONDERing more about civil rights. Thank you for sharing your comment with us today! :-)

  9. I think black people should have been treated just like white people. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a huge inspiration to all black and white people. He had a big heart and was willing to fight for segregation to end. Well, I believe that the black people should have been waited on if they had the money for food. Well, BYE.

    • We really appreciate your comment, Danielle, and we can tell YOU have a big heart, too! Thank you for sharing your beliefs on civil rights…we’re proud of you! :-)

  10. I love this Wonder. When I grow up I want to change how the world sees things and how teens are never really heard. I find that civil rights are meant for anyone. Whether you are four-years-old or 55-years-old, your voice is allowed to be heard because of your freedom of speech. I find that some people don’t listen, but when it is their turn to speak they get mad if they are not heard. I think of it like this: if you can speak you have a right to be heard. Just like everyone else Martin Luther King, Jr. left a great legacy that still carries on today. I find that the world needs people like him to help the next generation become a generation that will change the world.

    • Kaitlyne,

      Thank you for the WONDERful and thoughtful reply. Your ideas about civil rights are awesome! We think YOU will become a great leader who inspires your generation to change the world. :)

  11. Teens are the next generation. Most of the time we surround ourselves with the media, which tells us to be ourselves, but then also tells us how we should dress, act and talk. When we are out in the world, people follow the media and don’t follow civil rights. They follow what others do, say and dress. Civil rights are almost like a big document allowing you to stand out without being killed or badly hurt. Civil rights is all about freedom of speech, having your own personal opinion and freedom of religion. These freedoms make us who we are today. Because with these freedoms we are who we are.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cam! He’s a very inspirational historical figure! :)

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Paris! We are glad you have been WONDERing about such an influential activist! :)

    • That’s SUPER news, Destiny! Martin Luther King, Jr. was an incredible man– we’re glad you celebrated his legacy and WONDERed with us! :-)

  12. Dear Wonderopolis,

    I learned so much about the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr. I hope to learn more about him! You made me interested in a new topic! I didn’t even know that “civil rights” comes from the latin words ‘ius civis’! Thank you!

    • HOORAY, Ella, we’re so very glad you’re here today! Thank you for sharing what you learned and liked from our Civil Rights Wonder– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sure was an amazing human being! We’re very proud of you and all the WONDERing you’ve been doing, Ella! :)

  13. Wow! All of the information on this video was fascinating! But I have one wonder: Why did Dr.Martin Luther King Jr. keep going? I would have given up! I also find it interesting that the phrase ‘civil rights’ was originated from the latin term ‘ius civis’! Thank you Wonderopolis.

    • Thank you so very much, Jensen! We’re so happy that you have been WONDERing about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and his legacy! He was a very strong, intelligent man who had a passion for Civil Rights for all! Thanks for sharing what you learned today, Jensen! :)

  14. I really enjoyed this wonder. It helped me learn important things about the civil rights movement which is very important to me. This wonder was very engaging to me. Thanks wonderopolis!

    • Thanks so much, Henry! We’re thrilled to know that today’s Wonder was right up your alley! The Civil Rights Movement is an important part of history, but our future, too! Thanks for WONDERing with us today! :)

  15. I think it is great to see that somebody would stand up for their difference and make a difference in the world. I learned more about the civil rights movement. Thanks for the wonderful topic.

    • Hi there, Cameron! We’re so glad you shared your comment with us today! Differences are important– it makes us unique and special. We are glad that you learned that Dr. King stood up for what he believed in and made a difference! Nice work! :)

  16. I really liked that wonder! I think people just as much information that I did. That was an interesting wonder. It is just that I still have two wonders. They are why was segregation around and how come that black people were being treated badly how come it wasn’t white? But anyway thanks for that.

    • Hi there, Justin, thanks for sharing your awesome comment with us! We know there is a lot of history behind the Civil Rights movement– what started it, what caused it, and where we are today. History has an impact on a lot, including the treatment of those of different races, religions or beliefs. We Wonder if you can discuss the Civil Rights movement, and its history, with a parent or teacher. We bet it would be a great discussion and time to Wonder together! :)

  17. This video was very interesting. In fact so interesting I recorded it a second time on my iPod! I love what Martin Luther King JR. did because if he had not been there I wouldn’t have my best friend. Also he was probably an inspiration to a lot of people to make a change somewhere in their life!

    • Hi there, Anthony, thanks for WONDERing with us today! We sure are glad that you shared what you learned from our Civil Rights Wonder– and how it impacts your life, too! Thanks for being a great Wonder Friend– you inspire us! :)

  18. I liked the video; the song was good. I didn’t know that we need protection against sex discrimination. I learned that the term civil rights originated in Latin. What would happen if Dr. King was never born?

    • Hi there, Keelan! Thanks for sharing your comment and what you learned from our Wonder! We certainly don’t know everything, but all we can say is we sure are happy that Dr. King was a part of the world! We think it’s a better place, but there’s always room for improvement! :)

  19. I think that Martin Luther King Jr. is a good role model to show that you can do
    something that changes the way the world acts.

    • Hi there, Emily! We agree– Dr. King set a great example and he is a role model for all of us! We are glad you shared your awesome comment with us– thank you! :)

  20. WOW! The topic was very engaging and fascinating. I didn’t know that the word “civil rights” came from the Latin word “ius civis”. I wonder why Dr. King kept going? Maybe he was just really determined. Thank you Wonderopolis!

    • Hi there, Wonder Friend Elliot! We are so glad you learned something new today; you also did a great job of describing Dr. King. He was a very determined man, full of passion and knowledge! Thanks for WONDERing with us today! :)

  21. I really liked today’s wonder. I could really visualize what I would be like in an African American person’s shoes during that time. I thought that during the time of the civil rights movement all the people came together like a family and found a way they could stop segregation. Today’s wonder help me realize that Martin Luther King Jr. made a BIG impact on our life today. Thanks for sharing this video with us Wonderopolis!

    • Hi there, Tishya! Thanks for sharing all that you learned about the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King! We agree– he had an impact on the lives we lead today! What a WONDERful role model! :)

  22. I learned a little bit more about the civil rights then when I came home from school. One thing that I learned is the word “civil rights” is a Latin word “ius civis” which means “rights of citizens”.

    • Hi there, Sadie! We’re so happy to know that you learned something new about the origin of civil rights. Thanks for sharing your WONDERful comment with us! See you soon! :)

  23. Wonderopolis,
    I liked this wonder of last summer vacation. I learned lots of new information while reading/ watching about what civil rights is. I never knew that Martin Luther King Junior day was celebrated on the third Monday of January. I already knew something about MLK Jr. He talked about freedom, color, and spoke his “I Have a Dream” speech, and his “Black is Beautiful” speech. MLK Jr. did step up for a challenge/goal for himself to accomplish, which he did. He wanted both white and black people to get along with each other. I had two thoughts/opinions while both watching and reading this article. I thought that the civil rights were about the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks, and the bus boycott. Are they both related to each other? I also agree with you at the part when it said, “Civil rights come from laws of nature, not gifts from the government.” I think this means that laws are more important than getting gifts from people. Finally, I still have two questions that you may or may not be able to answer. If Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech saying that he has a dream of non-violence, why do people still use violence? And, do people know who shot MLK Jr.? I don’t.
    Thanks for having the time to read my comment! This was a very interesting article!
    P.S. Over the weekend, I wrote about MLK Jr.. It was really fun! :)

    • Hi there, Wonder Friend Meghana! We are very proud of your awesome comment– thank you for sharing it with us! We are glad to know that you’ve been WONDERing about Dr. King over the weekend, and you celebrated the day which honors him, too. We bet you can do some WONDERing of your own about Rosa Parks, the bus boycott and the end of Dr. King’s life. If you need help, we think your WONDERful teachers, librarians and family members would LOVE to Wonder with you! Please keep us posted on what you learn! WAY TO GO! :)

  24. This video taught me that the black people back then were treated badly. We need to treat everybody the same way. Even if they have different skin color.

    • Hi there, Anthony! Thanks for sharing what you learned; you’re right, we should treat everyone with respect, regardless of appearance or beliefs. Thanks for sharing your comment about equality! :)

  25. Hi Wonderopolis! I really learned a lot about civil rights. I knew nothing about civil rights before reading this, and now I am much more educated about American history. I also thought that history was boring, but after reading that I think it could be a very interesting topic. Thanks Wonderopolis!

    • Hi there, Peter! We are glad you shared your comment with us– and we agree: history is WONDERful! We’re proud of you for WONDERing about the Civil Rights Movement and how Americans lived during that time. Keep up the great work! :)

  26. I learned a lot but I still have one question: Why is Martin Luther King Jr. day celebrated on the third Monday of January instead of the 15th? I leanrned that the phrase “civil rights” came from the latin term “ius civis.” Thank you Wonderopolis.

  27. I really liked all the information that the wonder gave and I have a question that keeps nagging at the back of my mind and here it is. Why is DR. Martin Luther King Jr. so important, what about all the other leaders who were against segregation? What did Dr. MLK Jr. do that the other leaders against segregation didn’t do?

  28. I learned so much from this video. One thing I learned is that the phrase “Civil Rights” means “rights of citizens” in latin. Another thing I learned is that Civil Rights are personal rights that are protected and guaranteed by law. I feel bad about how black people were treated. It was so fun to learn about civil rights.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts about our Civil Rights Wonder, Jackson! We’re so happy you learned something new and had fun doing so! :)

  29. I think that the article is very educational. I learned that the word civil rights come from the latin word “ius civis” and that Martin Luther King was very insprirational to people.

    • Thanks so much, Amanda! We’re so glad you shared your thoughts about Dr. King and his civil right advocacy. He is indeed an inspiration! :)

  30. I learned a lot of new information from watching/reading that article. I always thought that we celebrated MLK Jr. day on the second week of January, not the third. One of the things that I did know was that he made the “I had a Dream” speech and the “Black is Beautiful” speech.

    • Thank you for summarizing what you learned about Dr. King and civil rights, Brad! We’re so glad you’re WONDERing with us today! :)

    • We agree, Dylan, we are grateful for what Dr. King said. He made lots of speeches about civil rights, equality and peace in the world. Thanks for sharing your comment! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What is a civil right?
  • Why do we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?
  • Which civil rights do you value the most?

Wonder Gallery

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Try It Out

What civil rights do you value most? Can you imagine what your life would be like if you lived in a country that did not grant you the civil rights you’re used to? How would you feel?

For example, what would it be like if you didn’t have freedom of speech? How would you feel if you were not free to say what was on your mind?

What about freedom of the press? Would you like to live in a country where you were not free to read newspapers…or if the news was written by the government or edited to remove things the government didn’t want you to know?

How about privacy? Do you think it would be fun to live somewhere where the government could come into your home at any time?

So what civil rights are most important to you personally? Write to tell us. Send us an email or post a comment on Facebook to let us know which civil rights you think are most important. We can’t wait to hear from you!


Still Wondering

Visit Smithsonian’s History Explorer to check out the Freedom Songs lesson to learn about songs that played an important role during the civil rights movement.


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