The Importance of Teaching About Martin Luther King Jr.

Since 1986, the United States has celebrated Martin Luther King Day each January in recognition of the incredible civil rights leader who completely transformed our nation’s view on race and diversity. It stands as a day that reminds us that regardless of our skin color, ethnicity, background, or beliefs, we are all Americans and we are all equal. MLK played a huge role in changing the system that separated people by the color of their skin, and the actions he took towards making that happen will forever be remembered in American history.

It’s likely that as a teacher, you teach a lesson on Martin Luther King around MLK Day each year. You probably discuss his “I Have a Dream” speech and the huge impact it had on segregation, racial justice, and the entire civil rights movement. But sometimes, just skimming the surface of MLK’s life and accomplishments are not enough. The impact he had on bringing justice and awareness to many inequalities in 1960s America will continue to live on through his legacy and in the celebration of Martin Luther King Day each year.

Some students may know very little about Martin Luther King, while others have learned a great deal about his life and legacy. It’s important to gauge how much your students already know before you can decide what to teach and how to teach it. MLK should not just be celebrated and learned about one day out of the year, but rather his ideology should be integrated into the daily lives of our schools and our students. There are many ways you can take MLK Day teaching to the next level and ensure your students get well-rounded and thorough instruction about the significance of Martin Luther King.

Helps Establish Identity

Establishing your own identity is an important part of growing up, and even adults often speculate on who they are and what they stand for. Your personal identity is what makes you you—your thoughts, feelings, choices, and beliefs. Children have labels placed on them from an early age that are typically well-meaning, but they can cause identity struggles as the child gets older. Some children are called disruptive, selfish, lazy, or dumb. Others may receive more positive-sounding labels that can still cause harm, such as a bookworm, teacher’s pet, or star student. When you add in race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, family background, and more, identity can become even more muddled and confusing, and students can struggle to define who they are and who they hope to be.

Martin Luther King’s identity was that of a black man in a largely white world, but he did not let that confine him. He shifted his identity to become someone who stood up for those who were deemed unimportant or voiceless, and he became a leader who drove others toward positive change and necessary reform. Explain to your students that the labels others give them do not define them, and that it is never too late to redefine who you are or to establish your personal identity as one to be proud of.

Discuss Diversity

It can be tough to have discussions about race and diversity in the classroom, but if you’re not having constructive conversations about this very relevant topic, you and your students are both missing out. Ask your students what diversity means to them and why it is important. Do some activities that allow students to discuss similarities and differences amongst different races, ethnicities, or individual people. Remind them that we are meant to be different—if we were all the exact same, innovation and uniqueness would not exist. Everyone is different in a variety of ways, and the color of your skin or the country of your heritage do not define a person any more than the color of their eyes or the shape of their body. Have honest and real discussions about the benefits of diversity, and let your students talk through some reasons why diversity is incredibly important in our world.

Explore Justice

Justice is a hot topic today, just as diversity and race are. Facilitate some positive conversations about justice—what it is, what it’s not, and how to encourage or accomplish it. Justice can mean a number of things to different people, but you can teach some lessons on what some of the great leaders in history saw as justice and how they went about establishing it. Martin Luther King believed in nonviolent protests and peaceful resistance. Even when he was faced with violence and physical threats and jail, King remained peaceful and resisted violence because he knew that was the most effective way to secure justice for those he was fighting for. Also, discuss how MLK did more than fight for racial justice—he sought fair wages for workers, humane working conditions for everyone, and so much more. Justice for him was not just about the color of a person’s skin, but it was about all people having equal rights, equal opportunities, and fair treatment.

Understand the Importance of Action

Dr. King was a nonviolent and peaceful protestor, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t take action. The entire civil rights movement was all about activism—doing something to make something else happen. The leaders of the civil rights movement didn’t sit idly by and talk—they got up and did something. But what they did wasn’t rude, violent, or disrespectful. They understood that they had to be peaceful if they wanted peace, and they had to be just if they wanted justice. They took action, wisely and carefully, but with the utmost intention. While there were countless other individuals involved in the civil rights movement, MLK was just one singular person who made a huge impact on the culture of America. Students need to understand that one person can indeed bring about positive change.