Living the Dream

The Contested History of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

By Daniel T. Fleming

336 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 11 halftones

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6781-2
    Published: June 2022
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-8412-3
    Published: January 2025
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-6782-9
    Published: March 2022
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5926-6
    Published: March 2022

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Living the Dream tells the history behind the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the battle over King's legacy that continued through the decades that followed. Creating the first national holiday to honor an African American was a formidable achievement and an act of resistance against conservative and segregationist opposition.

Congressional efforts to commemorate King began shortly after his assassination. The ensuing political battles slowed the progress of granting him a namesake holiday and crucially defined how his legacy would be received. Though Coretta Scott King's mission to honor her husband's commitment to nonviolence was upheld, conservative politicians sought to use the holiday to advance a whitewashed, nationalistic, and even reactionary vision of King's life and thought. This book reveals the lengths that activists had to go to elevate an African American man to the pantheon of national heroes, how conservatives took advantage of the commemoration to bend the arc of King's legacy toward something he never would have expected, and how grassroots causes, unions, and antiwar demonstrators continued to try to claim this sanctified day as their own.

About the Author

Daniel T. Fleming is lecturer at the University of New South Wales.

For more information about Daniel T. Fleming, visit the Author Page.


“A thoroughly researched account of the efforts that culminated in one of the most celebrated global holidays. . . . Fleming's volume is a much-needed chapter in the historiography of civil rights.”—Journal of American History

"A thorough and thought-provoking account of the King holiday’s origins and development. It offers an accessible yet nuanced narrative that should encourage students and scholars alike to question civic practices that have come to be taken for granted and reflect on the ways in which well-intentioned efforts to memorialize Black history can yield unintended results."—The Journal of African American History

"Fleming uses the King holiday to show that desires for racial reconciliation collapsed under the weight of good intentions set out by whites and Blacks alike. This is the book’s most important message. . . . a much-needed addition to the growing literature on civil rights memory."—Journal of Southern History

"A riveting book that provides many insights for further reflection for historians, activists, and those committed to furthering and interpreting King's legacy. The study is expertly sourced and accessibly written.”—Anglican and Episcopal History

“In the first book-length study of its kind, Daniel Fleming has added significantly to our understanding of the King holiday and debates around it. Through extensive archival research, Living the Dream offers an intriguing vantage point for exploring the racial views and policies of the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations.”—Renee Romano, author of Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders

“As a King scholar, I found Fleming’s work to be first rate. This book will not only make a significant contribution to the growing body of King scholarship, but it will be welcomed by people interested in American history generally, as well as African American history, the civil rights movement, American political development, and public policy specifically.”—Justin Rose, author of The Drum Major Instinct: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Theory of Political Service