The United States today celebrates the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., America's pre-eminent civil rights leader, who was gunned down by an assassin on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39 years old.

Various commemorations are taking place all over the nation, and politicians from both parties are making laudatory remarks.

Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life in the struggle against prejudice and for equality; against hatred and for brotherhood; against division and for non-violence, said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-CA. He offered us a message of peace, and inspired us to respect our neighbors not as members of a given race, but as fellow human beings. His mission was to 'end the long night of racial injustice;' his dream a vision of common purpose and common humanity.

It is my hope that as Americans we continue to strive towards Dr. King's vision of equality of opportunity and freedom not only here at home, but around the world, said Rep. Mike Pence, R-IN.  As he once said, 'Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.'

A Baptist minister, King became a giant in the Civil Rights Movement, combating racial segregation and discrimination through methods of civil disobedience used by Indian rights crusader Mohandas Gandhi, who had in turn developed his nonviolent strategy by studying the American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.

King, in 1964, became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace prize for his work against institutionalized racism.

King was a hero in his time and has remained so since. But he was not free from controversy during his life or afterwards.

Rep. John Conyers, D-MI, who has served in Congress since 1965, began proposing a national holiday for King as early as 1970. In 1983, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly -- 338-90 - for such a holiday.

But the measure ran up against opposition in the U.S. Senate, mainly in the person of Jesse Helms, the conservative Republican Senator from South Carolina.

Helms thought King undeserving of such an honor because he had ties to the Communist Party and because of those associations, according to Helms, King opposed the war in Vietnam.

King associated with identified members of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), with persons who were former members of or close to the CPUSA, and with CPUSA front organizations. In some important respects King's civil rights activities and later his opposition to the Vietnam war were strongly influenced by and dependent on these associations, Helms said on the Senate floor in October 1983.

Helms admitted there was no evidence that King was a communist, but he did have declassified FBI files showing that President John F. Kennedy and the Kennedy Department of Justice had repeatedly warned King about associating with communists.

Helms charged that King violated a commitment to sever his relationships with identified Communists.

Helms also charged that King was opposed to the Vietnam War not because of what King believed to be the best interests of the United States but on his sympathy for the North Vietnamese Communist regime and on an essentially Marxist and anti-American ideological view of U.S. foreign policy.

Many Senators reacted strongly to Helms' charges. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-NY, called them filth and famously took the anti-King document Helms had distributed to senators, threw it to the floor and stomped on it.

Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-MA, called Helms speech Red smear tactics and called upon Americans to shunned them

When certain senators said they opposed the national holiday because paying public employees not to work a day would hurt the American taxpayers, Sen. Bob Dole, R-KN, remarked:

I suggest they hurry back to their pocket calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery, followed by a century or more of economic, political and social exclusion and discrimination.

King himself, a year before his death, had answered the charges Helms posthumously leveled at him in an anti-war speech delivered at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967.

King denied support for Communist regimes and said that his opposition to the war was based on what it was doing to American society and, specifically, to the black community in America.

Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population, King said, in part.

We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. And so we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago.

I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor,' King said.

it is worth noting that the chief architect of American military policy in Vietnam, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, called the war a mistake in his book In Retrospect, published in 1995.

On October 19, 1983, the Senate voted 78 to 22 for the King holiday. On Nov. 2, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill and the first observance of the holiday took place in January 1986.