Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) is one of America’s most influential civil rights leaders who dedicated his life to helping others and fighting for racial equality. On Martin Luther King Day (the third Monday of each January), it is appropriate to take some time to reflect on the many important contributions he made to society that continue to benefit citizens of the United States to this day, and that also influence many people around the world.
Note: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a national holiday created in 1983 to honor Dr. King and his many accomplishments. In 1994, King Day of Service was initiated to transform the federal holiday honoring Dr. King into a national day of community service grounded in his teachings of nonviolence and social justice.
- Learn about Martin Luther King’s life. Begin with Wikipedia’s entry on Martin Luther King at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King,_Jr. However, don’t limit yourself to that small entry. Borrow some biographies from the library or purchase some. In addition, watch documentaries online or borrow DVDs.
- Watch King or other documentary about the civil rights leader. King is available on DVD from the History Channel. It originally aired 01/18/2009, which was two days after what would have been Dr. King’s eightieth birthday.
- Cable channels will carry a lot of content on King at the time of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
- Study the history of what life for African-Americans was like before Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. Segregation was intensely demoralizing and the lower wages for African-Americans made life increasingly more difficult and restrictive, including: access to housing, clothing, shopping and education.
- Read the Jim Crow Laws and commentary related to them.
- See narratives of what it was like.
- Read about the history of segregation in your local library.
- Revisit the momentous events of 1955. This was the year of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In a nutshell, the boycott began when a woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a White male passenger. Martin Luther King was elected to lead the boycott primarily because he was new in town and had not been corrupted. This was his first work as a civil rights activist, and he was incredibly successful.
- The bus in which Rosa Parks was sitting when she was arrested is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Plan a visit to see the museum display.
- Immerse yourself in the power and persuasiveness of King’s writing and oration. An incredible orator, King has written some of the finest words in history, which continue to be quoted to this day.
- Read a Letter from a Birmingham Jail, an open letter of approximately 7,000 words from Martin Luther King to his fellow clergymen of Alabama who criticized his participation in the civil rights movement in 1963. The letter contains many of King’s most quotable quotes such as: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
- Listen to his most famous speech, “I Have A Dream”, at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm (less than 1,700 words). This speech is regarded as one of America’s finest examples of oration, delivered on the occasion of the 1964 March on Washington on August 24. Try to memorize it if you can; its power is something you can draw on in times of need.
- Read King’s acceptance speech on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, December 10, 1964. It is at: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-acceptance.html. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the youngest man ever to be awarded the Nobel peace prize, at the age of 35.
- See also the “List of Works” below under “Tips” for more reading suggestions.
- Continue following the history trail of King’s contributions. Read about the March on Washington, the largest protest demonstration in U.S. history. Trace its political effects, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation which successfully ended segregation in America.
- Read the citations which accompanied the Medal of Freedom, the government’s highest civilian award, bestowed posthumously by President Carter on July 7, 1977. Also read the citations accompanying the Congressional Gold Medal, bestowed in 2003 to both King and his wife for “their countless contributions to the nation as leaders of the civil rights movement.”
- Visit key places in King’s history. When you get the opportunity, plan a trip to the various places of significance, including:
- Georgia: The Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia. The historic site is part of the National Park Service and was established in 1980 to commemorate the life and work of Martin Luther King. Places to visit here include: the Visitor Center, Ebenezer Baptist Church, The King Center (Freedom Hall), Fire Station No. 6, Dr. King’s Birth Home and the restored Birth Home Block.
- Dallas, TX: The Juanita Craft House where King went to discuss the civil rights movement.
- Alabama: Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Montgomery (King spoke at the funeral of girls killed by the Ku Klux Clan), the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and Parsonage where King lived for six years and Selma, the beginning of the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965.
- Washington, DC: The Lincoln Memorial, the site of the famous “I have a dream” speech. If you live in Washington DC, or can travel there for King’s birthday, there are many events held at this time, including Martin Luther King, Jr Day of Service, Smithsonian festival, plays or musicals, etc., and laying of a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial.
- Memphis, TN: The Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, the location of King’s “Mountaintop” speech, April 3, 1968 and The Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, where King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The hotel now no longer exists and is is now the site of an extensive National Civil Rights Museum.
- Celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with your community. There are lots of ways to celebrate the day but it’s great to get together with others to celebrate. Here are some suggestions:
- March on the night of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holding candles. Join a march organized in your city, town or area.
- Attend a local church service or memorial held in honor of King.
- Go and see locally organized displays, film festivals, plays and other performance events being put on in honor of this day.
- March in a peace parade.
- Turn car headlights on at noon.
- Have children write, draw, photograph, scrapbook, digitalize, etc. what the day means to them. Display their results online (share with others through social media) or somewhere else public such as at school, in your yard or windows, etc.
- Works by Martin Luther King, Jr.:
- Stride toward freedom; the Montgomery story (1958)
- The Measure of a Man (1959)
- Strength to Love (1963)
- Why We Can’t Wait (1964)
- Where do we go from here: Chaos or community? (1967)
- The Trumpet of Conscience (1968)
- A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1986)
- The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1998) edited by Clayborne Carson.
- Consider how MLK’s actions and beliefs affect US citizens today; for example, when African-American servicemen returned from fighting in World War II to homes full of persecution, they could have taken up arms, and the United States could potentially have had a second Civil War. If it hadn’t been for Martin Luther King and his embrace of nonviolence, the Civil Rights would very likely have been led by Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam; who initially wanted a violent approach to overcoming racial injustice. Many people would have died and perhaps the United States would be a very different country today.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. was unfaithful to his wife. Some find this particularly bad behavior for a clergyman.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. did not support the war in Vietnam at a time when it still had considerable political support; see Beyond Vietnam – A Time To Break Silence. This was a speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. was critical of both the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States, but was undecided between Adlai Stevenson or Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, and wrote in a letter: “In the past I always voted the Democratic ticket”. He was also a supporter in the ideals of democratic socialism, and voted for John F. Kennedy in the 1960 U.S. presidential election.