Editor’s note: The author of this piece is also the author of “The Barefoot Mommy,” which is featured below.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a bold, visionary leader for racial and economic justice and his vision was much larger and complex than many of us realize. He was also quite controversial in his day, especially among his white contemporaries.
However, most children wouldn’t know this by the way adults discuss King’s words and legacy. Too often, kids learn an incomplete, and even inaccurate version of King from educators and caregivers, which is why it’s so important for them to learn about his teachings fully, and early on.
Parents and educators often eagerly tell kids about the end of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, when he envisions Black and white children holding hands. Yet, we usually leave out the earlier portion of the speech, when King proclaims that his people have come to the capital to “cash a check” owed them by the government after it promised all Americans justice and liberty.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. Day approaches, it’s time to rethink how we talk to children about his work. Having just experienced the largest protests in U.S. history, which were fueled by police brutality against Black Americans, we owe it to our children — and to ourselves — to go deeper in our exploration of King’s work.
Use these seven ideas to honor King’s legacy with children and consider what his work means for the present day:
1. Talk With Children About Race Year-Round
King did not dream of a “colorblind” world in which we ignore the impact of race and racism; and children aren’t too young to have these discussions. Honest talk about race should take place in homes and classrooms throughout the year, not just on King’s birthday.
These resources can help you discuss race with children effectively:
- EmbraceRace is a nonprofit organization working to “raise a generation of children who are thoughtful, informed and brave about race.” Find their extensive library of webinars and action guides here.
- I’ve compiled a PDF guide of anti-racism resources geared to parents and educators here.
- The Conscious Kid has compiled a list of anti-racist children’s books. Click on each book cover to discover related teaching resources.
- PBS SoCal has its own list of anti-racism discussion resources for children here.
- Introduce elementary age children to the idea of systemic racism through “A Kids Book About Systemic Racism” by Jordan Thierry.
2. Talk About People Who Supported — and Opposed — King’s Work
There were many brave people who worked alongside King. Some of them were on the front lines, while others quietly worked behind the scenes.
King’s birthday gives us an opportunity to paint a picture of the broader civil rights movement he was part of. The following books can help parents and educators do just that:
- “We March” (Ages 3 - 7) by Shane W. Evans
- “Let the Children March” (Ages 6-10) written by Monica Clark-Robinson and illustrated by Frank Morrison
- “Pies from Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott” (Ages 6-10) written by Dee Romito and illustrated by Laura Freeman
- “A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation” (Ages 7-12) written by Barry Wittenstein and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
- “Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968” (Ages 8-12) written by Alice Faye Duncan and illustrated by Gregory Christie
At the same time, we shouldn’t exaggerate the number of Americans who supported the civil rights movement. We do children a disservice by acting as if civil rights activists didn’t face widespread opposition.
When children ask why so many people opposed King, adults can talk honestly about power, prejudice and fear.
Racism is a system that gave white people unfair advantages to better pay, housing, schools, health care and more. Many white people wanted to keep these unfair advantages. White people were also taught to look down on Black people, so that they wouldn’t feel guilty about benefiting from such an unfair system.
Parents can also talk with elementary age children about the role that fear played. Publicly supporting King was very dangerous for African Americans, and in some places it was even risky for white people to join the civil rights movement. Some people feared losing their jobs, homes, relationships, or personal safety.
3. Learn About the Movements That Are Continuing King’s Legacy of Civil Rights Today
Too often, adults offer children tidy narratives about the civil rights movement that imply racism is mostly a thing of the past. The truth is that when legalized segregation ended, racism morphed into different forms rather than disappearing.
Explore these groups’ work with children using the following resources:
- Black Lives Matter at School provides educators with resources and lesson plan ideas.
- First grade teacher Bret Turner describes helping students connect the civil rights, Black Panther and Black Lives Matter movements in this article for Teaching Tolerance.
- Look at and discuss these pictures of Louisville children at protests seeking justice for Breonna Taylor.
- Find 15 books to help kids understand that Black Lives Matter on my website.
4. Write a Family Letter to President-Elect Biden About Racism
President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated two days after King’s birthday is observed. If you’ve been regularly talking with your children about race and racism, this is an ideal time to take action.
Ask your children what they’d like our new president to understand about racism. What examples have they seen at school, in their community, or in the news? What do they want to see the president and other government leaders do to help end racism?
Caregivers can ask young children who are just beginning to write if they’d like to sign their names or add pictures to a letter the caregiver writes based on the children’s ideas.
5. Create a Toy Protest or Chalk Your Sidewalk
During this summer’s uprisings against racist violence, Wee the People Boston knew that families were looking for safe ways to show support for the protests. They joined with other groups to lead a Family Summer for Black Lives.
Families participated by chalking their sidewalks with messages of love and protest, the names of Black Americans killed by police, or eight word poems.
All of these activities are just as relevant now as they were this summer.
6. Support Black-Owned Businesses in Your Community
Toward the end of his life, King’s work began to focus more on economic inequality. When he made a speech in 1968 supporting the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, he called on Black Americans to boycott businesses with discriminatory hiring practices. He also urged people to do business with Black-owned companies as a way to build economic power.
Black-owned businesses also provided crucial support to the civil rights movement, and many modern day Black businesses support today’s anti-racism movements.
Spend some time on King’s birthday researching the Black-owned businesses in your community. You can also find national lists of Black-owned businesses in this article.
Talk with your children about why you’re doing this, and make a commitment to regularly shop with one or two particular businesses you’ve identified.
7. Celebrate with the Music of the Civil Rights Movement
Along with stories, music is an excellent tool for not only learning about the civil rights movement, but also experiencing a bit of what the movement was like.
Listen to "Guide Me" performed by Ella Jenkins with members of the Urban Gateway's Children's Chorus, below.
These resources provide kid-friendly introductions to important civil rights songs:
- Imani Uzuri’s lessons and video performances of freedom songs.
- “I’m Gonna Let It Shine: A Gathering for Voices of Freedom” by various artists.
- “Guide Me” performed by Ella Jenkins.
- “This Little Light of Mine” performed by Fannie Lou Hamer.