Teaching and Learning About Martin Luther King Jr.

January 2020

On Aug. 28, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed thousands of people gathered around the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall in Washington.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By The Learning Network

How do you celebrate and teach the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., both on the holiday that celebrates his birth, and all year long?

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an annual federal holiday since 1986, celebrates the national civil rights leader who was instrumental in challenging the racial caste system that delineated how millions of Americans lived their lives.

All 50 states celebrate the public holiday on the third Monday in January, but not all states, cities and towns dedicate it solely to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Some package it as a broader celebration of both Dr. King and Confederate leaders, according to this 2017 piece, “Celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Still Faces Pushback.”

Teaching Tolerance’s “Dos and Don’ts of Celebrating MLK Day” (and “Going the Extra Mile for MLK Day”) remind us that although the holiday is just one day — and Black History Month is just one month — Dr. King’s message of equality and justice for all are best embedded in the curriculum all year round.

The New York Times reported on Dr. King’s campaign and on the civil rights movement in general, and continues to report on related issues of segregation and inequality today. And on April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, The Times published a rich collection, from articles and Op-Eds to photos and video, to celebrate his life and legacy.

What would Dr. King make of America today?

On April 4, 2018, The Times published an interactive look at that question. Headlined “Martin Luther King Jr.: 50 Years Later, His Battles Live On,” here is how it begins:

Martin Luther King Jr. remains frozen in time for many Americans. Seared into our consciousness is the man who battled Southern segregation.

We see him standing before hundreds of thousands of followers in the nation’s capital in 1963, proclaiming his dream for racial harmony. We see him marching, arms locked with fellow protesters, through the battleground of Alabama in 1965.

But on the 50th anniversary of his death, it is worth noting how his message and his priorities had evolved by the time he was shot on that balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968. Dr. King was confronting many challenges that remain with us today.

He was battling racism in the North then, not just in the South. He was pushing the government to address poverty, income inequality, structural racism and segregation in cities like Boston and Chicago. He was also calling for an end to a war that was draining the national treasury of funds needed to finance a progressive domestic agenda.

This may not be the Dr. King that many remember. Yet, his words resonate powerfully — and, perhaps, uncomfortably — today in a country that remains deeply divided on issues of race and class.