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How to explain Martin Luther King Jr. Day to kids

Teach kids about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the significance of the man and the ongoing importance of the holiday named for him.

How to explain Martin Luther King Jr. Day to kids

With a fresh year just beginning, this is an opportune time to help children set a respectful and kind tone for the year ahead. Many offices and schools will be closed for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, January 16, making the nationally recognized holiday a great chance for parents to teach children about civil rights and American history.

While the topics of Martin Luther King Jr.’s work could seem too complex for some young minds, here are the basics that parents and caregivers need to know to help explain the significance of the day.

Who is Martin Luther King Jr.?

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. made it his life’s mission to bring compassion, fairness and racial equality to all throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The social activist and civil rights leader fought against the longstanding segregation that plagued the South through peaceful marches and nonviolent protests and by drawing upon the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and his church.

The Baptist minister was married to Coretta Scott King, who helped lead the charge during the civil rights movement. They were married nearly 15 years at the time of his death, when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

What are civil rights?

Each and every person is protected by civil rights that are granted by the U.S. government. This means that no matter the color of their hair, skin, religion, age, disability or nationality, all people are equally governed by the Constitution of the United States and cannot be discriminated against. Civil rights see to it that every individual is treated the same.

What did Martin Luther King Jr. achieve?

King is a remarkable historical figure in American history. Here are some of his most notable accomplishments, according to The King Center:

  • Montgomery Bus Boycott. Displeased by the segregation on Alabama buses and the arrest of Rosa Parks after she refused to give up her seat on a public bus, King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott movement of 1955. The crusade, which lasted over a year, ultimately led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that racial segregation in public transportation was unconstitutional.
  • March on Washington. King organized the March on Washington in 1963, to bring awareness to the civil rights movement. Over 200,000 people attended the march to the Lincoln Memorial that day, which played a pivotal role in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that abolished discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or nationality. At the March, King gave a speech titled “I Have A Dream,” which would go on to become one of the most famous, progressive and inspirational addresses in modern history that helped cement the idea of civil rights for all.
  • Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Following the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to help lead the civil rights movement. King’s service played a large role in helping the organization focus their energy on peaceful protests and nonviolent marches to put an end to segregation across the country. The work he did for the SCLC established King as one of the most influential and prominent figures of the civil rights movement.
  • Birmingham Campaign. In the early 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama, was one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. That meant that people, based on the color of their skin, were separated into different schools, used different bathrooms or drank out of different water fountains. The Birmingham Campaign was a series of protests led by King, aimed at ending Jim Crow Laws, which enforced racial segregation in public places. While the protests weren’t always peaceful, King, who was sent to jail for a short period of time along with other protestors, was successful in his movement to break down segregation barriers businesses, restaurants and other public establishments within Birmingham.
  • Nobel Peace Prize. In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to usher in civil rights for all. At the time, he was the youngest person to be honored with the award.

What is Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on November 2, 1983, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a federal holiday that occurs around the time of King’s birthday each year on the third Monday of January. Some years, the holiday falls on King’s actual birthday, but not this year. The declaration of MLK Day as a national holiday means it is observed annually on Mondays, thanks to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.

Here’s a snippet from President Reagan’s speech in the Rose Garden as he proclaimed MLK Day a national holiday:

“In his own life’s example, he symbolized what was right about America, what was noblest and best, what human beings have pursued since the beginning of history,” Reagan said. “He loved unconditionally. He was in constant pursuit of truth, and when he discovered it, he embraced it. His nonviolent campaigns brought about redemption, reconciliation, and justice. He taught us that only peaceful means can bring about peaceful ends, that our goal was to create a loving community.”

Share the full transcript of the speech with your children by visiting the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum.

Although MLK Day wasn’t signed into law until 15 years after King’s death, legislation to honor his legacy was introduced shortly after his assassination and continued on for years to come. On August 2, 1983, the House approved legislation, thus officially establishing MLK Day. The day observes King’s contributions to the civil rights movement and went into effect in 1986.

According to the Chicago Public Library, Illinois was the first state to declare MLK Day a holiday in 1973, 10 years before it was declared a national holiday, thanks to the efforts of Harold Washington, a state rep at the time.

“We honor Martin Luther King only when we work to complete the justice struggle for which he gave his life,” Washington said in a 1981 speech.

6 ways to teach children about Martin Luther King Jr.

While older children are likely to have a better grasp on the civil rights movement and King’s efforts, start small with little ones by explaining how everyone can help make a difference in the world through kindness and respect, just like King did.

Here are six ways you can help even the youngest kids understand the importance of his life:

1. Read a book about MLK

Reading stories to kids can be a great way for them to learn about King’s life and work. Children’s books, like “My Brother Martin” by Christine King Farris or “I Am Brave: A Little Book about Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Brad Meltzer, that are geared toward readers as young as 2 years old can be thoughtful and educational explainers for little minds. For more Martin Luther King Jr. Day reading recommendations, check out the Scholastic MLK picture book roundup, their list of MLK books for early readers or their MLK books for ages 10 and up.

2. Watch a film on MLK Jr.

Check your streaming services (fees may apply) for films on MLK, his work and his life, including:

Check film ratings and reviews to make sure they’re appropriate for your viewing party.

3. Discuss hopes and dreams 

Drawing inspiration from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, ask kids what their dreams are. What inspires them? Talk about ways kids and their families can make the world a better place, just like King did. You can have them write down these dreams and ideas or daw pictures and then hang the paper on the fridge (or elsewhere at home) to serve as a source of inspiration throughout the year.

4. Volunteer 

Children learn through example, so donating your time and demonstrating the importance of helping others will establish a lifetime of giving back for your kids. Go to the MLK Day of Service page on AmeriCorps to locate an age-appropriate volunteer opportunity near you.

5. Create art projects

Have children trace their hands on construction paper and cut them out. Overlap each hand to form a circle and glue them down to a sheet of paper to show that no matter how different we look on the outside, we are all the same on the inside. This learning activity helps demonstrate unity and respect.

6. Look for events

Many towns and cities host parades to honor and celebrate King’s life, which always makes for a fun, culturally enriching outing where kids can learn more.

Look into events and/or parades in your area, but here are a few noteworthy ones in 2023: