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Keeping Civility in Civil Rights: Carrying on MLK's Legacy

What do your kids know about Martin Luther King, Jr? Yes, he delivered the iconic “I have a dream” speech, but we can teach our kids so much more about this incredible American who became the most famous leader of the civil rights movement. This legacy is one involving faith, family, patriotism, honor, courage, respect, and perseverance . . . few embody these Primerrily values as he does. Here’s how Primerrily families are celebrating the national holiday that honors his life, legacy, successes, and dreams. More importantly, here’s how we are instilling these values into our kids (in part how we discuss race with our kids -- in the spirit of King’s colorblind America) to carry on and carry out his legacy.

Federal Holiday Background

The American leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. began when he was the young pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama. A prominent local leader, he was asked to lead the city bus boycott after Rosa Parks -- the mother of the civil rights movement -- “stood up” by sitting down at the front of a bus in 1955. He led the March on Washington in 1963, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and was tragically assassinated in 1968 (we recommend reading this moving statement from Heritage President Kay Coles James on the 50th anniversary of his assassination). Fifteen years later, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill into law to create a federal holiday honoring Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday (January 15, 1929), to be celebrated nationally on the third Monday of every January. The bill also established a Commission to oversee the observance of the holiday. Coretta Scott King, King’s widow, was made a member of this commission for life in 1989 by President George H.W. Bush.

  • Explain to your kids why we have this day off from school and work, and why many take this day to remember the patriotic passion and dream of a great American. Support the conversation with these MLK books. Then ask about something unfair they have seen, or something they know to be wrong. Ask about ways they might try to right this wrong.

Legacy of Values

Martin Luther King, Jr. practiced what he preached by maintaining civility and respect throughout his fight for equal opportunity and equal treatment for all Americans. He truly put “civility” in the civil rights movement. His words, courage, and actions continue to inspire many to this day. In current times of tragic race relations and violence, we pray that his prayers and dreams for our country continue to touch more hearts and minds. King is also known for his philosophy of nonviolence, even when confronted with violence. His commitment to nonviolent protest was disturbingly tested. Nevertheless, King held firmly, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.

Americans of all races looked up to him for his moral leadership and powerful, compassionate speeches. His courage and conviction were contagious, as he brought in Americans of all backgrounds to join the civil rights movement. The peaceful protests he led during the civil rights movement were instrumental in producing anti-discrimination legislation, which outlawed racial segregation.

  • Ask your kids about which values they think are important (kick off that conversation by naming a few values you live by and why). Then ask them to talk about times they practiced their values. Last, ask about the values that others (family, friends, teachers, friendly strangers, etc.) have practiced to help them. For some conversation inspiration to get started, check out Primerrily’s list of values at the bottom of our Mission page. If your kids are especially little, offer three values, have them pick a favorite, and ask them to tell you about it.

Iconic Words

In 1963, King delivered his iconic speech, I Have a Dream. In this speech, he drew upon the ideals and cited the words from our country’s founding documents, such as unalienable rights, self-evident truths, and equality. We truly hope you click here for the full transcript and 16 minute audio of raw American history and riveting inspiration. Copied below are excerpts from the speech.

  • “Dream” with your kids about the ideas they have to make their family, community, country, or world a better place for all its people. Ask them to begin their thoughts with “I have a dream. . .” and to speak proudly and confidently just like the American hero we’re celebrating on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!

I Have a Dream

delivered on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.

". . . But one hundred years later [after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863], the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. . . And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

. . .

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor [George Wallace] having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

. . .

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride, From every mountainside, let freedom ring!"


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