Six Meaningful Ways Kids Can Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day
I’ve lived almost my entire life in Memphis, the city where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. So, I’ve observed many different ways that people mark his birthday.
Growing up, I attended public schools where 80 – 90% of the student body was Black. I probably heard about Dr. King and the civil rights movement at school a lot more than many of my white peers growing up in the 1980s.
But I still absorbed the message that many white people in my city sent, that the civil rights movement didn’t have anything to do with me.
The National Civil Rights Museum, located at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot, opened in 1991 when I was in the 8th grade. My school sponsored a field trip. Since none of my white classmates were going, I decided not to go either.
I’m embarrassed that it took me several years to visit what is now one of my most sacred places. At the same time, my experience reminds me that widespread, open resistance and hostility toward Dr. King and the civil rights movement was (and in some ways still is) a thing.
I’m so glad that most children today will learn about and celebrate Dr. King’s birthday in some way.
But I’m also concerned that as Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated more widely, we’ve often watered down and even misrepresented his message and his work to children.
Today I’m sharing six meaningful ways we can teach kids about Dr. King’s life and work without whitewashing his legacy.
Related Post: 5 Young Activists Who Will Inspire Kids
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Six Meaningful Ways Kids Can Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy
1. Talk openly with children about race all year round.
As Vera from The Tutu Teacher put it on her Instagram account, “If January 15th is the first time you’re talking to your students about leaders of color, you’re doing it wrong.”
Martin Luther King Jr. Day should also not be the first, or only, time you talk to children about race.
Many people of my generation were taught that Dr. King’s dream of equality between Black and white people meant that we should be colorblind. That is not true.
Actually, as Dr. Lucretia Berry of Brownicity explains in this video, we harm children when we teach them not to notice race. Unintentionallly or not, we’re actually equipping them to perpetuate racism when we tell them not to talk about race.
If you’re a teacher looking for classroom resources, be sure to check out Teaching Tolerance.
2. Share quotes from Martin Luther King that are often ignored by mainstream media
Depending on the age of your children, you could encourage them to re-write quotes in their own words. Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a good place to start.
Talk about what Dr. King might have meant when he wrote “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Think of examples today when activists have been criticized for pushing for change too quickly, just as white clergy in Birmingham criticized King in 1963. (If you need examples, just google media coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement.)
3. Read children’s books about social justice
If you’re reading this post in preparation for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I suggest pairing a book that’s specifically about his life with another book about social justice and human rights. Talk about the parallels between Dr. King’s work and the other story you are reading.
How does change happen? What do leaders do when they face resistance? Who else had to support these leaders for their work to be possible?
I recommend the following books about Dr. King, all of which I’ve had the chance to personally review.
The Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Johnny Ray Moore and Amy Wummer
This board book is ideal for teaching the youngest children the basics of Dr. King’s work. It focuses mostly on how the racism he witnessed as a child influenced his work as an adult. (Recommended for ages 2 – 5)
I Have a Dream by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Kadir Nelson
If you want to introduce children to the words of Dr. King’s most famous speech, you simply must get a copy of this edition. Kadir Nelson’s stunning illustrations are able to convey the deep emotion and grand vision of the I Have a Dream speech in a way that can’t be matched. The book also includes a CD of the official recording of the speech from the March on Washington. (Recommended for ages 4 – 9)
Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport and Bryan Collier
I’ll be reading excerpts of this book for my church’s children’s sermon this Sunday. Brian Collier’s collage illustrations are striking, and I love how Rappaport focuses the story on quotes from Dr. King and the context in which he said them. (Recommended for 5 – 9)
Belle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, Bettye Stroud, and John Holyfield
I’ve been fascinated with the isolated, resilient communit of Gee’s Bend, Alabama ever since I had the chance to view some of their stunning quilts in a traveling exhibit. So, I was very interested to learn that mules from Gee’s Bend played an important role in Dr. King’s funeral.
It had been Dr. King’s wish to have mules pull a farm wagon holding his burial casket. Because of his work to improve the lives of poor Black people, this symbolism mattered greatly to him. In the book, an older woman tells young Alex about how much it meant to the community when Dr. King visited in 1965, urging them to register to vote. She tells him that just like Belle the mule, “Benders” are strong, steady, and stubborn. (Recommended for ages 5 – 9)
Martin Luther King: The Peaceful Warrior by Ed Clayton and Donald Bermudez
This biography of Dr. King for children was orginally published in 1964, written by a reporter who also worked with Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. While Dr. King had turned down several other writers who had asked him about writing his biography, he agreed to Clayton’s book.
The chapter book has been updated to include Dr. King’s final years, including his winning the Nobel Peace Prize and his support of the Memphis sanitation strike in which he lost his life. (Recommended for ages 8+)
What Was the March on Washington? by Kathleen Krull and Tim Tomkinson
This chapter book with simple black and white illustrations gives older elementary children an in-depth look at the people, ideas, events, and speeches that lead to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. At the same time, it breaks down that key information in small enough chunks that it’s not overwhelming.
Krull doesn’t shy away from the controveries that the march caused, as well as divisions behind the scenes. This is an excellent book for sparking conversations about how social change happens. (Recommended for ages 8+)
Related Post: Teaching Kids the Difference Between Justice and Charity
4. Talk with kids about how social change happens
It’s harmful (and untrue) when we teach children only about well-known heroes of the civil rights movements. As you read books and watch videos, talk to kids about the many everyday people who took risks alongside Dr. King. When you look at pictures of the March on Washington, imagine with your children what it took for some of the people in the crowd to participate. What might their stories be?
Look for current examples of racism – and resistance to racism – and share those with kids in age-appropriate ways.
As I write this in January 2018, I’m been thinking about clothing company H&M’s racist ad of a Black child wearing a hoodie that said “coolest monkey in the jungle.”
Almost as soon as people saw the ad, activists began drawing and publishing new pictures of the child, with slogans like “coolest king in the world.” The company’s been forced to apologize and withdraw the hoodie, and many conscious consumers will probably boycott them for a long time. Elementary aged children are old enough to talk through what’s problematic about this shirt and how collective action worked.
5. Teach kids about the power of activism to change unjust laws
Because Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was such an amazing orator, sometimes we become so focused on his speeches that we forget the context they were made in.
The “I Have a Dream” speech was made at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march was key to winning later legislative victories for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and later, the Voting Rights Act.
Even young kids can participate in a family letter-writing session to elected officials.
Several times, my 5 year old and I have written letter to our Senators about issues like the DREAM Act and funding for hunger and poverty programs. He draws a picture and tell me what he wants to say. I write it down for him, which he copies on to his letter (he’s still learning to write.)
Then I wrote a longer letter that gives more detail and context and mail them together in the same envelope.
On Martin Luther King Day, 2018 one of the urgent issues that Congress needs to hear about is the need to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The DREAM Act for undocumented immigrant young people and reforming the money bail system which keeps poor people in jail before they’ve even been tried are two more examples.
You can use my Family Letter Writing guide (which includes a template for children to color/write on) to write to Congress about any number of issues.
6. Make a family gift to an organization working to stop racism, poverty, or violence.
Together with your children, decide on an organization that you’d like to support with a donation.
Not sure where to start? Showing Up for Racial Justice has a list of Black-Led Racial Justice Organizations here.
Think about how kids can meaningful participate in your gift.
Do they have an allowance that you can invite them to make a small contribution from? Could they make a request on social media for your friends and family to join in your support of this group? Could they make and sell something as a fundraiser for the organization?