The impact of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the country and the world is profound. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a recognized federal holiday where we have the opportunity to officially commemorate and celebrate the life, wisdom and words of the famous activist who changed the course of history. In order to delve into the teachings of Dr. King and to share his message with our students and children, we have an amazing history lesson and corresponding activities spread throughout the page.
Getting to know Dr. King
Most of us are familiar with the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. Or some variation- maybe the initials, MLK, Jr- something of the like. But, who really was the man that we observe a federal holiday for? Activist, champion of civil rights, minister, wordsmith. Getting to know the man behind the holiday, for one. As well as, the man behind the speeches. Working to familiarize ourselves with who he really was and the legacy he left behind is critical to understanding King.
Martin Luther King came from a Southern black ministry family- both his father and grandfather were preachers. The King family was led by his college educated parents. They lived a middle class suburban life with a network of supportive extended family around. During Martin’s childhood, schools were still segregated in the South and there was a distinct lack of co-mingling of races.
As a young teen, Martin Luther King spent a summer in Connecticut on a tobacco farm. Here, he experienced first-hand the extreme differences of racial relations in the North versus the South. He wrote home to his parents where he observed, “Negroes and whites go [to] the same church,” he noted in a letter to his parents. “I never [thought] that a person of my race could eat anywhere.” This trip to Connecticut dramatically altered King’s perspective on race. Especially how it prejudice defined the Southern region of the US. Ultimately, it was a major jump start to Martin Luther King’s focus on promoting change.
Becoming Dr. Martin Luther King
By the time that Martin Luther King graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1948, he had the beginnings of his future greatness under his wings. The years immediately following his undergrad studies, took King North to Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. Here he studied Ghandi’s philosophies of non-violence and honed his renowned oratory skills. The student body of Crozer was comprised primarily of white students. Nevertheless, King’s notoriety, skills and popularity got him elected as student body president.
Following his time at Crozer, King then went on to study theology and ethics at Boston University. It was at Boston U that he earned himself a doctorate in 1955. Here you can read Martin Luther King’s doctoral dissertation titled, “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman”.
Call to action
This was also the time when Martin met Coretta Scott. Coretta was an Alabama native living in Boston and studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. They were married in 1953, two years prior to his earning his PhD. They went on to have four children and lived in Montgomery, Alabama. Here, Martin Luther King served as a well- respected Baptist pastor. Shortly after King’s tenure as pastor began, a small group of the Montgomery’s civil rights activists made their first official contest against the segregated seating on the city’s public bus systems.
This call to action was in response to the December 1, 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on the city bus, she was arrested in violation of the city’s segregation law. Over the course of the following year, Martin Luther King led the Montgomery Improvement Association which spearheaded the campaign to successfully desegregate the city of Montgomery.
Teaching Dr. King
In our classrooms and at home, it is important for us to educated our students and children on who Dr. King was and why his words are so valuable. It is not simply just to have a day off of school, but to recognize the symbolism of this day of recognition. We have prepared an amazing MLKJ Day learning bundle of activities geared towards celebrating and understanding Dr. Martin Luther King’s words and mission.
In this bundle, learners have the opportunity to consider the character traits of Dr. King and to discuss who Dr. King was, what he said and why. Important vocabulary words such as equality, freedom and peace are highlighted. In these vocab explorations, learners will consider the meaning of these powerful words and what they mean to them as individuals.
The resources in this bundle are access through our paid subscription services, but we’d like to offer a free option for our readers to see the great content we have available!
Please check out our I Have A Dream cloud activity
Following the success Martin Luther King had in Montgomery over desegregation, he took his platform on a national scale. Martin traveled all over the country and the globe, speaking out against civil rights injustices. By the early 1960s, King was a household name. His commitment to fighting injustices had grown exponentially and the targeted focus on him became a concern to his safety. He was arrested along with other activists on shaky reasonings. Over the next 5 years, King was at his height of power and recognition.
The 60s were a turbulent time for many in the country and across the globe. In America, however, the fight to openly challenge and change long standing prejudices came at a heavy cost for many, including Dr. Martin Luther King. One of the most cataclysmic events was the march across the Pettus Bridge crossing into Selma, AL. The march in Selma was one met with opposition from younger activists who wanted to see more “action” over the perceived “inaction” from King and his non-violent approach to injustice. All that being said, the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has direct connections to the Selma march.
Martin Luther King’s legacy begins
One of the most striking things about Martin Luther King was his ability to see the big picture. The night before his death, he told a crowd to whom he was speaking, “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” These prophetic words became history when King was assassinated the following morning while standing on the balcony of his hotel.
I have always found it to be distinctly heartbreaking that a person’s legacy never truly is reveled until their passing. For Martin Luther King, the central focus of his legacy has become his incredible contributions to civil rights advocacy. Between 2009 and 2011, the King Memorial was erected along the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the contributions that Dr. King bestowed on the world. I have been to see it several times, and it is, indeed, a striking memorial to Dr. King.
Martin Luther King Day became a federally recognized national holiday in November 1983. It was established by President Ronald Reagan. His widow then founded the King Federal Holiday Commission. The Commission began work on planning and coordinating annual celebrations in honor of Dr. King. The Commission’s goal was to encourage Americans to follow the overall mission of Dr. King and to advocate for social justice.
Each year, we observe Martin Luther King Jr Day on the third Monday of January. Annually, the King Center focuses a specialized theme. The theme of 2023 is ‘Cultivating a Beloved Community Mindset to Transform Unjust Systems’. This year and every year, we recognize and work to live the life and words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Courtney is an MTT tutor, academic coach, and blog contributor for MTTES. If you check out our FB and Instagram pages, you might see her giving a storytime with her son Jack through the company’s Facebook Live service. Courtney’s love of the English language, learning, and creative writing inspired her to contribute relevant content to teachers, tutors, parents, and homeschoolers seeking support across an array of trending topics. She and her teacher husband have two small children and reside in Baltimore, MD with their dog Lottie May.