Beyond the Dream: Teaching Our Children about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.” When talking to a friend about how to best recognize MLK Day 2021 in writing, she pointed out to me the rest of the quote, “And what is it that America has failed to hear?” She got me thinking…

Pic of MLK Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Got to visit the MLK Memorial back in 2012.

Like most, I was exposed to Dr. King in school. Seeing posters on the walls. Attending diversity assemblies during Black History Month. Listening to his “I Have a Dream” speech. Hearing of his untimely and tragic death. Despite all of this exposure, there is so much about this remarkable man’s life and impact that I’ve only recently learned. 

Honestly? “I Have a Dream” has tended to be the extent of what comes to mind when I think of Dr. King, and I want my children to have a better appreciation of his legacy than I did growing up, especially given the heightened unrest our nation has been experiencing lately. That appreciation begins with me.

10 things to know about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his legacy

  1. Dr. King began attending Morehouse College when he was just 15 years old. He graduated at 19. He later earned his Ph.D. in theology from Boston University. I’d assumed he went to school on a typical timeline and stayed in the South. 
  2. Neither he nor his father were named Martin at birth. Both were originally named Michael. Martin Luther King, Sr., changed both his and his son’s names when Dr. King was 5 years old. His father was inspired by the teachings of the Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther. To change your and your child’s name because you’re inspired? Wow.
  3. As far as holidays go, he is the only non-president whose birthday is observed as a national holiday, and it has only been recognized since 1986. I naively thought MLK Day has been a holiday for much longer than that; in fact, it took a lot of time and toil for the holiday to be declared despite being first proposed just days after Dr. King’s assassinnation. 
  4. Stevie Wonder played a large role in the creation of MLK Day and spent years advocating for a day of national recognition for the slain civil rights leader. He testified to Congress in 1983 and even wrote a tribute, “Happy Birthday,” to honor Dr. King. Wonder performed the song in a primetime television special on January 20, 1986, after the holiday was made law. I had no idea the often quoted lyrics “Happy Birthday to ya” were from a song written by Stevie Wonder in dedication to Martin Luther King, Jr.
  5. Dr. King was arrested nearly 30 times for civil disobedience while doing work to expand civil rights. He spent a night in jail in Montgomery, Alabama, for driving five miles over the speed limit. Just five miles over.
  6. Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 when he was only 35 years old for “his non-violent struggle for civil rights for the Afro-American population.” He was the youngest person at the time to be recognized with the honor. I am 36 right now. How’s that for perspective?
  7. Renowned passive resistance leader Mahatma Gandhi was an influential figure for Dr. King. Gandhi and King, two men who preached and lived nonviolence, were both shot and killed. A beyond tragic irony.
  8. Corretta Scott King, Dr. King’s wife, established The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (“The King Center”) in 1968 in Atlanta. Dr. Bernice A. King, the youngest of Dr. King’s four children, is the current CEO of the center. She is a great follow on Twitter
  9. On April 3, 1968 (the day before he was assassinated), Dr. King gave a speech in Memphis in support of the city’s sanitation workers’ strike where he foretold of his untimely death. This particular passage has stuck with me, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will… And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man.” You can read the rest of the speech (with audience reaction/response) here. In 2012, the Smithsonian Channel released a 46-minute long documentary which includes seldom seen footage and radio recordings of Dr. King’s assassination. You can view powerful clips and related videos here; you can see the film in its entirety on their YouTube channel. Note: The documentary itself is rated PG.
  10. “I Have a Dream” is Dr. King’s most widely recognized speech, but he gave dozens more and wrote quite a bit. As a high school English teacher, I’ve taught the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” but (I’m embarrassed to admit) I pretty much stopped there. A friend recently pointed me to a speech Dr. King gave in 1965, two years after he shared his dream. I listened to a portion of “How long? Not long,” read the full text, and recognized a portion I’d heard before but without the larger context of the speech. “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

My kids are still young, but a deeply held belief in justice and commitment to anti-racism begin forming now. And while I know that “I Have a Dream” is a speech they will no doubt hear and remember, introducing them to the full reality of a man who left an indelible mark on our nation is where I plan to start.

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After graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Claire made her way to Kansas City where she met her husband Scott (a KC native and Mizzou grad). Both are high school educators; she teaches English while he often schools her in history. They live in Olathe with their three children — Evan Alex 6, Abbie Michelle 4, & Baby Isaac Harris. (Fun fact: All three have November birthdays!) Claire regularly spends time advocating for early childhood education/intervention and is always looking for ways to become more civically engaged. She loves cheering on the Huskers, Royals, and Chiefs, date nights, reading five books at once, writing, contemplating the deeper issues of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, and listening to her kids giggle together. Catch some of those giggles on Instagram @clairebear_kc.

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