Why We Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day

It's important to celebrate the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and find ways to apply them in our everyday lives. Learn about this special holiday with our guide to MLK Day.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day honors the famous American civil rights leader who dedicated his life to achieving equality for people of all colors. Although few kids question a day off from school, some may wonder why there's an entire holiday devoted to one man. It's because Dr. King's message of peace and justice touched many Americans. The national holiday that commemorates him is a time to learn history and reflect on valuable teachings that are still meaningful today.

A collage of images of Martin Luther King Jr.
Getty Images (3). Art: Jillian Sellers.

Wondering how to start the conversation? Here are the facts on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (or MLK Day) and its cultural significance, in terms simple enough for kids.

When is Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the third Monday in January, near Dr. King's birthday on January 15. Although MLK Day is a federal holiday, it's designed as "a day on, not a day off," says Sarah Hamilton, a social impact consultant. It's the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service by Congress, according to the United States Department of the Interior.

Why Do We Celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, Ph.D., is an author, advocate, and former president of the University of Maryland. He was just 12 years old when Dr. King came to his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, to prepare children, like him, to march peacefully in protest for their civil rights. "I had the chance to listen to Dr. King in church, and I was inspired when he told us that tomorrow could be better than today. Most important, he conveyed his confidence in children to be a part of the crusade against racism by helping with the organization and leadership of that march," explains Dr. Hrabowski.

Dr. King wrote, spoke, marched, and stood up for what he believed in—and this federal holiday lets people honor his life and work. What's more, it "encourages all Americans to volunteer to improve their communities," adds Hamilton. The day of service uplifts people to address social problems, bridge barriers, and move closer to Dr. King's vision.

MLK Day also provides an opportunity to educate and demand social justice in real, tangible ways. Jen Lumanlan, founder of the Your Parenting Mojo podcast, finds that there's still very little understanding among many people—including parents—that our daily actions may actually contribute to perpetuating systemic racism. "We have this idea that if we're all just going about our lives and we're nice to Black people that there's no real problem," says Lumanlan. "But the schools we enroll our children in, the ways we advocate for our children, and the opportunities we make available to them have very real consequences that reproduce inequalities." Martin Luther King Jr. Day allows people to reflect on this idea, helping them understand the need for social change.

Talking to Kids About Civil Rights

Dr. King led the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and his teachings are still relevant today. As parents, we might have a desire to protect kids from uncomfortable conversations, especially those about people doing things we might wish hadn't happened. But children are aware of the protests following the killing of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and similar stories because they resonate with many young people of all races. Consider using MLK Day as a starting point for having these discussions.

Matt Albert, Ed.D., executive director of the Center for Reflective Communities, believes children can learn two most important lessons from Dr. King. First, young people have the power to make a change. And second, racism is alive and well, specifically in ways that are much harder to see.

Jen Lumanlan, Founder of Your Parenting Mojo

"The schools we enroll our children in, the ways we advocate for our children, and the opportunities we make available to them have very real consequences that reproduce inequalities."

— Jen Lumanlan, Founder of Your Parenting Mojo

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Quotes for Children

Here are a few famous quotes from Dr. King to discuss with children. They might start an interesting, powerful conversation about the history of civil rights.

  • "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
  • "Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it."
  • "We are not makers of history. We are made by history."
  • "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend."
  • "A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true."

Martin Luther King Jr. Day Activities for Kids

Ready to teach your children about Dr. King's inspiring legacy? Start by sharing why his life and actions have improved our current world, then consider completing some of these MLK Day activities for kids.

Read Books About Martin Luther King Jr.

Many great stories have been written to teach about Dr. King and the civil rights movement, including the following:

Watch movies with themes of racial injustice.

Kids might resonate with lessons about social justice played out on film. Here's a few popular movies to watch, depending on your child's age:

Discuss with the intent to listen.

Whether you read books, watch films, or have open discussions about civil rights, you should encourage your children to reflect upon their learnings. Explain in an age-appropriate way what life was like for Black children when Dr. King was alive. Ask them these open-ended questions to facilitate a deeper understanding:

  • What was so unique about the way Dr. King encouraged people to take a stand?
  • What do you think the world would be like if Martin Luther King Jr. had not stood up for civil rights or helped to organize others?
  • Why is the world a better place because of Dr. King?

If your children are younger, you might ask them to draw pictures to demonstrate their understanding.

Brainstorm ways your family can make a difference.

Remind kids that Dr. King worked hard to benefit a cause—and your family can do the same! Choose a specific cause that interests your kids and give back together. Get more inspiration of ways to serve by visiting the AmeriCorps MLK Day of Service website and searching for volunteer opportunities in your community.

Reiterate the importance of education.

During the civil rights movement, an entire generation learned the importance of getting an education to eradicate systemic racism. "That lesson is just as important today," says Dr. Hrabowski. "We need to encourage children and young people to get an education so they can be part of the solution, whether as a lawyer, a social worker, a teacher, a doctor, a scientist, or in another role."

All in all, MLK Day serves as an opportunity for our society to celebrate Dr. King's teachings, educate children on racial injustice, and remind parents to listen to the voices of young people.

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