Teaching Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday

January 14th, 2013

Next Monday, January 21, the nation will stop and observe the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., who was born on January 15, 1929. A Baptist minister and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, King advocated nonviolence while leading the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s and famously articulated a vision of America wherein every citizen truly had equal rights. Although King championed nonviolence, his life was tragically cut short on April 4, 1968 when he was shot and killed before a demonstration in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the only federal holiday that honors a private American citizen, and, with the celebration of George Washington’s Birthday and Columbus Day, one of just three holidays honoring a specific person. A 15-year effort on the part of lawmakers and civil rights leaders, buoyed by popular support, culminated in 1983 when the US Congress passed legislation that officially designated the third Monday in January as a federal holiday. Today, Americans use this anniversary not only to pay tribute to one man’s efforts in the cause of equal rights, but also to celebrate the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.

Our latest ebook in “The American Calendar” curriculum looks at the meaning of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and how we as a nation can properly observe and celebrate it. Designed to raise questions suitable for rich classroom discussions, in the ebook, we reflect on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, and assess their efforts to overcome racial discrimination and to promote racial equality and integration. The first chapter explores the origins and traditions of the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration, with particular attention to the American character of the holiday. The second chapter presents powerful accounts of the black American experience during the era of racial segregation, from Booker T. Washington,  W. E. B. Du Bois, and Zora Neale Hurston, to Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, with a focus on showing the need for civil rights. The third chapter brings us to the Civil Rights Movement itself, evaluating the goals, strategies, and tactics of the Movement’s various leaders. The final chapter raises questions about the challenging and vexed issues left open in the wake of the successes of the Civil Rights Movement: equality; family, religion, and culture; and identity.

Each selection includes a brief introduction by the editors with guiding questions for discussion. Also unique to this collection is a never-before published letter by coeditor Leon R. Kass about his and his wife Amy’s experience working with civil rights activists in Mississippi during the summer of 1965.

Click here to learn more about how to think and teach about the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.



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