For some retailers, though, the holiday has become a moneymaker, a way to boost sales and attract shoppers who have the day off of work. And that's not sitting well with some critics, who say that kind of commercialism is no way to remember the civil rights leader.
"Shout out to The Gap who is having an MLK sale. Nothing honors him more than 30 percent off some khakis," wrote one Twitter user. The retailer sent an email ad offering up to 50 percent off for "The MLK Event."
Gap isn't alone. Numerous retailers are offering Martin Luther King promotions. Furniture stores are pushing doorbuster deals. Samsonite is discounting luggage. Honda dealers are promoting an "MLK Drive Away" in this ad.
"Am I the only person who thinks that @Honda's 'MLK Drive Away' promo is tacky at best, irreverently offensive at worst?" asked another Twitter user.
Similar complaints surfaced last year as stores moved their Black Friday sales earlier, asking employees to work on Thanksgiving Day. Though the move was controversial, it proved a savvy one. Millions of people went shopping on Thanksgiving Day, according to the National Retail Association. Most of those were age 25 to 34. Walmart (WMT) said it saw more than 22 million shoppers on that day.
Even dance parties have come under fire for Martin Luther King Day events. A Michigan party promoter drew intense criticism for planning a "Freedom 2 Twerk" event over the weekend. The party was widely panned for a flyer that showed King's head superimposed on the body of a man wearing a thick gold chain. King's daughter even took issue with the flyer, telling a Fox affiliate in Atlanta that the imagery was "appalling."
The owner of the site hosting the party voided the contract with the promoters when he saw the flyers, reports the ABC affiliate in Flint, Mich. The owner said he knew nothing about the flyers, but was receiving threatening phone calls and email messages after the promotion went public.
Finally, the cognac brand Hennessy has apologized for an email advertisement with recipes for "drinks MLK Jr. would be proud of." Those cocktails included the "Introspective Moment" and the "Privateer," and were described as "perfect for any indoor gathering to celebrate Dr. King's life," MarketWatch reports.
A spokeswoman told MarketWatch that Hennessy "deeply regrets the release of this. . . inappropriate media communication."