Although he is undoubtedly one of the most important and influential figures in American history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is officially celebrated and commemorated just once a year. What’s worse, much of the racial discrimination he fought to end remains an unfortunate part of everyday life for many Black people in America, meaning Black Americans’ fight for civil rights chugs on. That’s why it’s important to revisit King’s plight and compassion, especially with members of the next generation. So, if you’re looking for a way to share with your children the significance of King’s legacy, you’re in luck. There are some great kid-friendly movies about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement available to watch right now.
Talking about race with your children can be a difficult and daunting task no matter what the color of your skin is. Since kids tend to be naturally loving and inclusive, it can sometimes be difficult for them to grasp the concept of segregation and prejudice, especially when such discrimination is racially motivated. But as hard as it is, teaching your children to stand up for the equality and dignity of all humans will make them better people, and in turn, will help to make the world a better place.
To get the conversation started, you can look to storytelling. Movies are a particularly great way to add depth and dimension to your family’s discussion as they can give your child some emotional perspective into the struggles people face. In honor of his legacy, here are some impactful, family-friendly films about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement that he launched, which you can watch with your kids right now.
If you want to teach your kids that they too can make a difference, there’s no better example than Ruby Bridges, a young Black girl who became a symbol in the civil rights movement when she was just 6 years old. Get the conversation started by watching Disney’s Ruby Bridges together as a family. The movie tells the true story of how 6-year-old Ruby bravely helped to integrate New Orleans public schools in 1960. Despite facing harassment, blatant racism, and even threats of violence from white parents and students, Ruby walked into school every day. Her story is one about courage, bravery, and above all, the importance of taking a stand for what you believe is right.
Selma, Lord, Selma
Disney’s Selma, Lord, Selma is a great kid-friendly film that tells the story of Sheyann Webb (played by Jurnee Smollet), an 11-year-old schoolgirl who is inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to participate in the civil rights movement unfolding in Selma, Alabama, in the mid-1960s. The movie reflects Sheyann’s perspective as a young Black girl as well as her desire to help end the discrimination and degradation she and other Black people face. Over the course of the film, Sheyann takes part in a number of history-making events, including right-to-vote protests and the infamous 1965 Bloody Sunday march.
March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World
March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World is a Scholastic Storybook DVD based on a book of the same name written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sister, Christine King Farris. Like the book, the film is a tribute to Farris’ inspiring brother. It gives viewers a personal look at who Dr. King was and the values and beliefs he held dear, as told by his sister. It also provides a personal account of the day Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech through narrations, historical photographs and video clips, and artwork from Farris’ book.
Watch March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World, which Common Sense Media recommends for children ages 4 and up, on YouTube or rent the film on Amazon Prime.
Inspired by the real lives of three incredibly smart Black female mathematicians, Hidden Figures details the true story of how Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan assisted NASA in pulling off one of the greatest space achievements in history. Set in Virginia in 1961, the film gives viewers some insight into some of the struggles Black women faced in the 1960s and how they worked to fight against the segregation, racism, and discrimination they encountered. But given the brilliance of Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan — three women whose work played an integral part in early American spaceflight — the film also provides a great representation of strong and smart female role models for younger viewers.
An American Girl Story – Melody 1963: Love Has to Win
The Amazon Prime Original movie An American Girl Story – Melody 1963: Love Has to Win is a great film that follows the journey of a young Black girl named Melody Ellison as she grows up in Detroit in 1963. Through Melody and her family, viewers are given a look at both the joy and difficulties that come with being Black in America during the civil rights movement. In the film, Melody must deal with being bullied and racially profiled by white students, often using her creativity and imagination to overcome the adversity and racial inequality she faces. When the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing happens, Melody begins to fear for her family’s lives until she finds hope in her community.
Watch An American Girl Story - Melody 1963: Love Has to Win, rated for ages 7 and up, on Amazon Prime.
The Color of Friendship
Based on a true story, The Color of Friendship is a Disney Channel movie that details the friendship that develops between two girls who come from two seemingly separate worlds. Piper Dellums is the daughter of a Black U.S. Congressman. Mahree Bok is the daughter of a white wealthy family living in apartheid South Africa. Set in 1977, the film begins with Piper preparing to host Mahree for a semester abroad in Washington, D.C. But when Mahree arrives, she is surprised to learn her host family is Black — and Piper is just as surprised to find her South African exchange student is white. The film follows the two girls as they become friends, despite the cultural biases they were brought up with.
Remember the Titans
Remember the Titans is the true story of the troubles a high school football coach encounters when his team becomes the first integrated football team in Alexandria, Virginia, a town where football is very much a way of life for local residents. In 1971, Herman Boone is named head coach of the newly integrated T.C. Williams High School football team. But the team finds itself in conflict early on as Black and white players repeatedly clash in racially motivated fights both on and off the field. When the team finally begins to play as a unified force, they find many white members of the community and even the school board are rooting for them to fail. Against all odds, the team becomes a symbol of unity within the divided community as the coaches and players learn to respect and trust one another.
John Lewis: Good Trouble
Teach your children what it means to get into “good trouble” with John Lewis: Good Trouble, a documentary that focuses on one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest friends and allies: the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis. Like Dr. King, Lewis was also a civil rights activist. His 60 years of nonviolent activism, which began when he was just a teenager and continued when he was elected to represent Georgia in the House of Representatives in 1987, are detailed in the documentary, which also includes excerpts from a number of Lewis’ powerful and inspiring speeches. Common Sense Media recommends John Lewis: Good Trouble for children age 10 or older.
Based on Stewart Burns’ book Daybreak of Freedom, Boycott details the events surrounding the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and 1956. In it, Iris Little-Thomas plays Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old department store worker and civil rights activist who was arrested on Dec. 1, 1955, after refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. The biographical drama reveals how local civil rights activists, including a young Martin Luther King Jr., organized a boycott of municipal buses that lasted from Dec. 5, 1955, to Dec. 20, 1956.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: An Historical Perspective
Using rare and largely unseen video footage and photographs, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: An Historical Perspective explores the life and legacy of civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Along with detailing Dr. King’s activism, the documentary also digs into the lasting effect and impact his work has had on the fight for civil rights that continues to happen today (see the King family’s recent push for voting rights). But parents should be aware that like many documentaries focused on racism in America, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: An Historical Perspective does contain brief moments of violence, including a historical photograph that depicts a lynching.
Watch Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: An Historical Perspective, which has been rated for children 13 years of age and older, on Amazon Prime Video.
I am MLK Jr.
I Am MLK Jr. is a documentary released in 2018 that details the impact Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has had on Black Americans. Through interviews with civil rights activists like Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. John Lewis, and Rev. Al Sharpton as well as a number of popular Black public figures like actor Nick Cannon and CNN’s Van Jones, viewers learn how Dr. King motivated and inspired others to carry on his activism and legacy. Although likely not a great film for younger children, I Am MLK Jr. is a great documentary to further introduce teens and pre-teens to Dr. King.
Rent I Am MLK Jr., which has not been rated and may include historical news footage depicting violence, on Amazon Prime.
No matter which movie you choose to watch this MLK Day, each open the door to have important conversations with your children.
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