Upon its dedication in August 1972, the DC Public Library’s new central branch—designed by famed modernist architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe—became one of the first public buildings in the country to be named in honor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). The naming of this iconic downtown edifice culminated four years of activism by residents from across the city.
African Americans comprised around 70 percent of DC's population, and many had known King both as a national figure and as a key ally in local campaigns for civil rights.
As King was first rising to national prominence as a co-leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, when he was just 27 years old, he visited DC and reportedly addressed 4,000 people at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church and at Howard University's Rankin Chapel. He urged students to devote themselves to dismantling segregation and wealth inequality, emphasizing his concern with "the slums in this city."
In May 1957, King helped organize the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, for which thousands of people converged at the Lincoln Memorial. There, on the third anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education and Bolling v. Sharpe, he engaged the crowd in a call and response of "Give us the ballot!" Along with co-organizers, A. Philip Randolph and the NAACP's Roy Wilkins, King was awarded a key to the city during this visit. King returned in April 1959, where he spoke at the Washington Monument grounds to some 26,000 marchers who had gathered to demand "the orderly and speedy integration of schools," according to a petition that was circulated there. (At the first Youth March for Integrated Schools, a year earlier, Coretta Scott King had delivered a speech on her husband's behalf.)
As DC's black leadership ramped up its campaign for home rule in 1965—the District had lost the right to self-governance almost a century earlier—King joined the DC Coalition of Conscience and 5,000 home rule activists for a vigil at Lafayette Park in August 1965. King charged "Southern congressmen" with being "derelict in their duties and sacred responsibility to make justice and freedom a reality for all citizens of the District of Columbia." The event was co-chaired by Rev. Walter Fauntroy, who invited King back to DC two years later to lead a parade through the Shaw neighborhood in support of a community-controlled urban renewal project.
In February 1968, King joined 2,500 members of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam in defying a court injunction to hold a service at Arlington National Cemetery in honor of fallen soldiers. During this visit, he also met with Black Panther H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael, founder of D.C.'s Black United Front, in hopes of persuading them to support his Poor People's Campaign. A month later, and just five days before he was assassinated in Memphis, King delivered his last address in DC at the National Cathedral. Sit-ins at the District Building to demand that the city honor King with a holiday began in May 1968, prompting Council hearings and annual remembrances. The call for residents' input on a name for the new library prompted hundreds to weigh in, including school children. As a racially integrated facility devoted to learning, in a downtown area that had formerly been largely off-limits to black Washingtonians, the new central library was a fitting memorial to King. A Black Studies Division was launched during the first year it opened, and its free meeting rooms and event spaces have since become sites for political organizing and activism