Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is such a tremendous figure in history that it can be difficult for children to understand his importance and the meaning of his message. In advance of his holiday, we had
kids tell us what they think about Martin Luther King Jr., and honestly, they know more than you might think.
Where I live in New York City, Martin Luther King Day is a pretty big deal. There are Martin Luther King Day programs in school starting in 3rd grade, and in 4th grade, they do an entire unit in history
just on his legacy. However, before 3rd grade, there isn't much taught about segregation and racism... in schools, anyway. Cosmopolitan, liberal city that NYC may be, racism is as pervasive here as it is everywhere else, as per the New York Times, and therefore children begin learning what that means at a young age.
When I asked my kids about
Martin Luther King Day, I was surprised with how much my son (11), knew, and also how little my daughter (8) knew. Honestly, I'm quite ashamed she knew so little, as it is my job to teach her something of these things, and I have failed. It is a gross representation of my privilege, and I need to and will do better. 1 Elijah, 11.
"He worked against segregation and helped organize the bus boycott in Alabama. He was known for his speeches, kinda like Obama, and he was a pacifist... that means he didn't like violence. His birthday was in January, so that's why his holiday is in January, but he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in April. He was really young. People always talk about his 'I have a dream,' speech, but he also said that the 'arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.' He would probably not be impressed with how crappy America still treats black people and Jews and anyone else who isn't white."
(Note for clarity: Elijah is an autistic savant, and tends toward stream-of-consciousness speech with specific details.)
2 LeeLee, 8
"Um, he told people to walk with him so that white people would stop being jerks to black people? He had a lot of dreams, and, like, told everyone. We don't go to school on his birthday, and there are a lot of pictures of him on the walls in school. He was shot by a white guy."
3 Divyne, 10
"He's a black hero. He organized marches, gave speeches, and wrote books about why black people should be treated the same as white people. He hated war and violence, and loved everyone, even if they didn't love him back. He was killed because he wanted to change the world."
4 Dante, 6
"He was really cool, and he was like a preacher to everybody. He wanted everyone to be equal, and not be mean. He told everyone to not ride the bus if the bus people were mean and made black people sit in the back all the time. He talked about sitting on the mountains in his dreams, and his wife kept talking about it even after he was gone, so that's cool."
5 Perezza, 8
"He had lots of dreams, and wanted everyone to be nice to everyone and not fight or kill each other. I think he was like Ironman a little, cause he died at the end."
6 Alice, 5
"He was very important, because he helped change the rules. Did you know that people used to say someone couldn't sit on a bus because their skin was brown? He changed those rules because that's NOT fair."
7 Anonymous Girl From Boston, 5 ullstein bild Dtl./ullstein bild/Getty Images
"He changed the world by making sure everyone isn't judged by the color of his skin — by making announcements. Can I say the bomb word? His house and his brother's house got bombed — seriously. It's true. I don't like these parts, but somebody shot him."
8 Odin, 7
"He talked to white people about being black, and why their skin color didn't matter. Black people were treated really bad back then, like, almost even worse than now. The white people did not like him so much that they killed him, but he is still really famous because he was so smart and talked really good."
9 Tommy, 11
"He wanted to make a difference for black people, so he started a non-violent movement. Do you know what that is? It means he didn't like war. Like, at all. They did boycotts and he made speeches, but he never like, hit anyone. I heard on the history podcast Dad listens to that he didn't poll well with white people because he was changing things and they didn't want them changed. He was killed at a hotel, and his wife took over a lot of what he was doing."
10 Alejandra, 8
"He was black, but not black and Spanish, like me. And didn't want black people to have to go to the bathroom in a different room from white people or go to different schools, so he talked about it a lot. He and a bunch of his friends told black people not to ride the bus, and to march instead. He has a big statue near the one for Washington, because he's very important."