In classrooms all over the country, posters hang on walls bearing the face of Martin Luther King, Jr. Libraries put out displays of books about his life. Bulletin boards are decorated with phrases from famous speeches. Many will remain up throughout the school year, not just for the federal observance of King’s birthday on Monday.
Young elementary school children will likely read Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King by Jean Marzollo or Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport.
Math classes will figure word problems using key elements of King’s life as part of their equations. Art classes will create renderings of King while English teachers ask students to write speeches of their own.
Teachers are quick to point out that King’s life and work are part of lessons all through the year. He is central to discussions on the civil rights movement. His speeches inspire budding orators who yearn to compete in state contests.
Monday will be the 25th anniversary of the federal holiday. For many, it will be a day of service. President Barack Obama called for Americans to band together in service to face unprecedented economic challenges. Last summer he announced United We Serve to rally volunteers. Part of that initiative is a program called the MLK Day of Service.
King said that all that is needed to be of service and, thus, to be great is “a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love . . . .” Working toward change takes people—lots of people—who work, walk, march, volunteer and mentor. King did not lead in a vacuum.
As the country recovers from the latest grand act of violence in Arizona, it’s hard to ignore just how devastating King’s own assassination was for the country in 1968. But that’s not what this day is for. It’s far better to remember the non-violent conflict resolution that King championed.
On Monday, Stevie Wonder’s revamp of Happy Birthday will play repeatedly on radio stations. But let the day be more than time away from school and work. Let it be a celebration and reminder of the good that happens when we work together toward noble goals of ending poverty and ensuring equality. Then we can continue on our way of making King’s vision of a “vibrant, multiracial nation united in peace and reconciliation” a powerful reality.
Williamson is associate editor at Teaching Tolerance.
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