On the third Monday of January each year (in 2021, that’s 18 January), Martin Luther King Day is observed and celebrated through service in the US. Learn more about MLK and his contribution to the Civil Rights Movement here!
Who was Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Born on January 15, 1929, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Christian pastor, a leader of the civil rights movement in America, Nobel laureate, and anti-war activist. King was the conscience of a nation as he stood up in the face of institutional racism leading millions to demonstrate against the injustices of American society. King’s embodiment of the non-violent methods used to protest racial discrimination changed the course of history. He remains an inspiration to generations of people regardless of their racial and ethnic background.
His birth name was Michael, as was his father’s. After a trip to Germany, where the elder King became impressed by the life of the Reformation priest Martin Luther, Michael’s father changed his name to Martin. Soon the younger King would also adopt the name. That’s not the only thing Martin, Jr. would imitate from his father’s life. After undergoing seminary training, the young MLK would eventually join his father as co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was famous for many accomplishments, but perhaps his greatest legacy is not in his achievements but in his methods. Nonviolence was the hallmark of King’s success at leading a movement for civil rights for African Americans. King fused his belief in the Christian doctrine of love, espoused by Jesus, with the non-violent political resistance demonstrated by Mohandas K. Gandhi. King said this powerful combination gave him the method for social reform he needed.
Civil Rights Movement
King went to segregated schools in Georgia, and this experience of discrimination led him to become a strong proponent for civil rights for African Americans. While serving as a pastor, he was also a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. This prepared him to take on a leadership role in one of America’s greatest non-violent demonstrations — the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955.
Montgomery bus boycott
The boycott began when a Black woman, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat in the “whites only” section of a bus. This year-long political demonstration when Black passengers refused to ride on the city’s bus services because they were treated as second class citizens to white passengers captured the nation’s attention and catapulted King to fame. During the boycott, King was arrested, his home was bombed, and he was subjected to personal abuse, as were other protesters. Yet his unwavering commitment to non-violence in the face of police aggression set in motion a political movement the country had rarely before seen.
By 1957, King became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which bolstered the burgeoning civil rights movement. For the next decade, MLK would travel more than six million miles giving speeches, leading demonstrations, and at times being imprisoned, physically threatened, and beaten. He led voter registration drives, organized the peaceful March on Washington where he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and gave advice to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
MLK wrote many books including Stride Toward Freedom, his first book. It recounts the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The famous 1967 Massey Lectures which King gave through the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation are collected in The Trumpet of Conscience. In the lectures, King addressed the Vietnam War and civil disobedience. In 1963, he wrote the movement’s seminal work “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. In a triumph of oratory, the letter is a scathing indictment of white church leaders who preach the love of God but do nothing to stop the injustices God despises. King said that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action rather than waiting forever for justice to come through the courts. The letter contains one of most memorable King quotes: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Nobel Peace Prize
King was awarded five honorary degrees in his lifetime, was named “Man of the Year” by Time magazine in 1963, and received, at age 35, one of the world’s most prestigious awards — the Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech, King said, “…man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
On the evening of April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was to lead a protest march in sympathy with striking garbage workers of that city, King was assassinated by a lone gunman. He was just 39.
Honoring King’s Legacy
Martin Luther King Jr. Day (officially Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., and sometimes referred to as MLK Day) is a federal holiday marking the birthday of the civil rights leader. It is observed each year on the third Monday of January. King’s birthday is January 15. Known as “a day on, not a day off”, the holiday is an opportunity for adults and children to spend their day off from work and school performing acts of service. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service to encourage all Americans to volunteer to improve their communities.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill into law to create the federal holiday honoring King. The national Martin Luther King Day of Service was started by U.S. Senator Harris Wofford and U.S. Representative John Lewis, who co-authored the King Holiday and Service Act. This federal legislation was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994.
Resources for Learning about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement
Help Teaching has created many educational resources for this holiday.
- Read-Aloud: Martin Luther King, Jr.
- People of Peace: Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Martin Luther King Jr. Spelling (Grade 1)
- A Dream Like Martin Luther King Writing Prompts (Grade 2)
- Martin Luther King Jr. Writing Prompt (Grade 3)
- Martin Luther King Jr. Timeline (Grade 4)
- Martin Luther King Jr. Words (Grade 4)
- Martin Luther King Jr. Reading Passage (Grade 4)
- Martin Luther King Jr. Reading Passage (Grade 5)
- Martin Luther King Jr. Vocabulary (Grade 5)
- Martin Luther King, Jr. (Grade 8)
- I Have a Dream (Grade 9)
- King Quotes (Grades 11-12)
- Letter from Birmingham Jail (Grade 12)
- The Civil Rights Movement
- School Desegregation
- Montgomery Bus Boycott (Grade 9)
- Selma March (Grade 3)
- March on Washington (Grade 4)
- Civil Rights Test (Grade 9)
- John Lewis: Civil Rights Icon
- W.E.B. Du Bois (Grade 6)
- W.E.B Du Bois Quotes (Grades 11-12)
KidsKonnect.com has a library full of MLK-related activities
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day Facts & Worksheets
- The March on Washington Facts & Worksheets
- Civil Rights Movement Facts & Worksheets
Check out these free resources from BusyTeacher.org.
- Beyond Martin Luther King Day: Teaching Argument Through the Writings of Martin Luther King
- 7 Ready to Use ESL Activities for Martin Luther King Day
- H: Talking About Our Heroes [Teacher Tips from A to Z]
These groups and institutions can also help you teach about MLK Day:
- Teaching Tolerance provides free resources to educators for teaching about MLK.
- You might find these free classroom resources from The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University helpful.
- Civil Rights Teaching, a project of Teaching for Change, provides lessons, handouts, news, and resources for teaching about Dr. King and the role of everyday people in the Civil Rights Movement.
- Hey Teach, a content hub for K-12 educators created and operated by Western Governors University offers 5 Classroom Activities for a Meaningful Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
- The National Education Association has free lesson plans, activity ideas and other resources for teaching MLK Day.
Learning at home and online
- 8 Frugal & Fun Martin Luther King Day Activities for Kids from Money Crashers
- Watch King’s speeches on YouTube
- MLK Day: 5 Ways to Help Your Kids Understand the Significance from the U.S. Department of Education
- Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts celebrates the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by surrounding you with art, culture, and community
- Celebrate With DE: Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service
- “MLK- The King and His Dream”
- “Kid President Has a Dream”
- “The Story of Martin Luther King Jr. by Kid President”
- “Let Freedom Ring – MLK Rap Song”
- Story reading on video of “Martin’s Big Words;The life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
- “Martin Luther King Jr.” (a 5-min. video documentary by Studies Weekly)
- Martin Luther King – “I Have A Dream Speech” – August 28, 1963
- Books for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day recommended by PBS
Service activities online
- AmeriCorps will help you find a volunteer opportunity and suggest service project ideas
- Try these 5 MLK Day of Service Activities for Families from Create the Good
- The largest MLK Day event in the nation is the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service
- Youth Service America’s MLK Day of Service offers free downloadable resources and video trainings to guide you as you take your project from idea to action including a Kids in Action Guide (for ages 5-12) and a Youth Changing the World Toolkit (for ages 13-25).
Webinars and online educational events
Or skip the video and download a pdf of the slides from the presentation
- The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (“The King Center”) presents a worldwide Teach-In on Building the Beloved Community. Friday, January 15, 2021.
- The Town of Lexington, Massachusetts, will hold its 28th commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with its 8th annual family-friendly day of volunteer activities supporting the underserved. Monday, January 18, 2021.
- Fans of Minecraft will love the Minecraft March on Washington: Virtual Exploration Monday, January 18, 2021.
- The State of New Jersey Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Commission will host a Virtual Youth Conference “Youth, We Hear You!” Monday, January 18, 2021, 9 am to 2 pm.
Image source: Photo by Ilse Orsel on Unsplash
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