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How to explain Martin Luther King Jr. Day to your kids

Rachel Murphy
Jan. 16, 2019
Image via Unsplash/@jerobernot1991

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, Jan. 21, making the nationally recognized holiday a great chance for parents to teach children about civil rights and American history.

While the topics of his work may oftentimes seem to complex for young minds, here are the basics that parents need to know to help explain the significance of the day.

Who is Martin Luther King Jr.?

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on Jan. 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 Apr. 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?

Set to make his debut on the $5 bill in 2020, King is a notable 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 certain people went to a different school, used a different bathroom, or drank out of a different water fountain based on the color of their skin. 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 Nov. 20, 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. This year, the holiday falls on King’s actual birthday and marks 89 years since he came into the world. The declaration of MLK Day as a national holiday is thanks to the Monday Holiday Law, which helped establish other days of recognition such as Christopher Columbus Day, according to the U.S. Senate.

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 University of California, Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project.

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 Aug. 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.

5 ways to teach your child about Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Here are five ways you can help even the youngest member of your family understand the importance of his life:

  1. Read a book: Reading stories to your child can be a great way for them to learn about King’s life. Children’s books, like “My Brother Martin” by Christine King Farris or “My First Biography of Martin Luther King Jr.” by Marion Dane Bauer, that are geared toward young readers ages 3 and up can be thoughtful and educational explainers for little minds. For more Martin Luther King Jr. Day reading recommendations, check out Scholastic’s MLK book roundup.

  2. Discuss hopes and dreams: Drawing inspiration from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, ask your children what their dreams are. What inspires them? Talk about ways that your family can make the world a better place, just like King did. You can also write them down and hang the paper on your fridge (or elsewhere in your home) to serve as a source of inspiration throughout the year.

  3. 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 NationalService.gov to locate an age-appropriate volunteer opportunity near you.

  4. Art projects: Have your 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. Invite the neighborhood kids or friends from school over to join in!

  5. Look for local events: Check your local newspaper listings or local blogs for MLK Day events. Many towns and cities host parades to honor and celebrate King’s life. A family outing like that can be a fun and a culturally enriching way to learn more about his life’s work.

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