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Portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Highsmith, C. M., photographer. (2011) The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, Washington, D.C. United States Washington D.C. District of Columbia Washington D.C, 2011. September. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2012630225/.

Explore with Students the History and Traditions of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

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Monday, January 15, 2024, is the 95th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. For many students, the holiday that honors Dr. King’s life and legacy may feel routine. The creation of the holiday, however, was neither inevitable, nor without controversy.

Use resources from the Library to explore with your students some of the history and evolving traditions of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Exploring the history of the holiday

Students can examine the image below to consider one example of messaging used early in the push for a holiday to honor Dr. King.

poster on a wall with a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. and the text "April 4 Black Holiday, Take a day off Don't Work
Trikosko, M. S., photographer. (1969) “Don’t work” sign promoting a holiday to honor the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ask students to observe the image.

  • Where does their eye go first?
  • What do they see that they did not expect?
  • What powerful words and ideas are expressed?

Then, encourage students to think about their response to the poster.

  • Why can they learn from this item?
  • What questions does it raise?

After students spend some time observing and reflecting, invite students to engage in additional questioning. At this point, students should consult the item record. The record (“About this item”) provides helpful clues for further analysis. Guide students, using prompting questions such as:

  • What was happening during this time period?
  • What do they think was the creator’s purpose in making this poster and why?
  • What does the creator do to get their point across?
  • Who do they think was the audience for the poster and why?

As an extension, you might add more information about the legislative debate surrounding the holiday. While calls for a holiday came soon after the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, the legislation that created the holiday was not signed into law until 1983. Students may use the Congressional Record to examine some of the debate among members of Congress.

Practicing traditions 

Students could also examine the idea of service and its relationship to the King Holiday.

In 1994, Congress passed a bill that established the holiday as National Day of Service. Congressman John Lewis and Senator Harris Wofford introduced the bill. Both men had worked as youth alongside Dr. King during the Civil Rights Movement.

There is a strong history of youth action in the movement that Dr. King led. The essay and oral history interviews featured in the Library’s Civil Rights History Project provide powerful accounts of the incredible contributions and impact from young people in the movement. This portrait gallery is also a helpful resource. Students could explore the portraits and oral histories to learn more about the many people who worked with Dr. King in pursuit of civil rights. Students might transform their research into service by educating their peers, teachers, or even school leadership on what they’ve learned.

Students might find inspiration for more acts of service by observing, reflecting on, and questioning issues relevant to their local environment, school, and community.

We want to hear from you: How do you use primary sources to teach about the MLK Jr. holiday? Tell us in the comments!

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