Should Homeschools Focus on Martin Luther King Day Lessons?
This year, it was tough for me to come up with a Martin Luther King Day themed lesson.
Well, for starters, I decided this year is going to be a year full of meaning.
It is not going to be a forgotten year or a year of fluff.
That includes business, parenting AND educating.
That doesn’t mean I’m going to change all the curriculum I chose.
It does mean that I endeavor to breathe life into every lesson. Whether it is from a textbook, from an online source, a unit study, or something the kids and I decide to do together.
So, enter the first federal (paid) holiday after the New Year.
Martin Luther King Day
I lived in Atlanta, Georgia for ten years, worked at Morehouse College for three years and being of African-American heritage. So, I took it for granted that everyone celebrated Martin Luther King Day.
And I was going to do the “normal” history of his life.
I was going to include his legacy. His popular writings. Books for younger kids so they can understand his contributions.
Questions to ‘quiz’ them.
Then I asked myself…
…what would any of that mean to them?
What does any of it mean to me?
Why present something to my children just to clutter their head with trivia?
So that they can eventually take it for granted?
Like I did?
I mean, I was in the thick of it.
I was in the heart of the environment that shaped Martin Luther King Jr.
And not only did I take it for granted, but I was clueless as to how, or WHY the day – the holiday – came to be.
Admitting that to myself changed my entire MLK Day plan. I was a woman on a mission.
Not wanting to just give names, dates and coloring sheets.
I wanted to understand WHY it existed. What was the process? To help them understand.
How could that understanding help me breathe life into my children’s’ education? To help them carry on that legacy? So that they could, in turn, breathe life into someone else.
But what if I don’t feel wronged?
You see, my children come from a very diverse family. In our family, you will find Native American, African-American, Italian, Irish, and Costa Rican. From every color, they’ve known love. And from every color, they’ve seen anger.
But they’ve not FELT injustice. Being picked on because they are different is not a conversation I have had with my kids.
So. Should this be subject matter for me to even deal with in homeschool?
I think, yes.
Because although many have come to accept, and even embrace the ideology of Martin Luther King Jr., it was not without a struggle.
And a lot of back and forth.
It is a history that is being “misremembered”. Yet, it needs to be recounted for the sake of our children and the world they will inherit.
The first thing I wanted my kids to understand was the origins of the holiday. What were its roots? Why did it come about? Who orchestrated it?
You might be surprised to learn that the campaign for Martin Luther King Day began shortly after his assassination.
That’s right. In 1968.
US Representative John Conyers (yes, the oldest current serving member) began working on the bill in 1968. He had only been in Congress for three years at that time. He presented initial legislation that year.
Three years later, the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) presented Congress with a petition signed by more than 3 million people supporting a King holiday.
It sat in Congress for eight years.
Nothing happened. No support.
Then, the labor unions got involved
Now, I don’t know if you recall the history of the famous, “I Have a Dream” speech.
It was part of the March on Washington.
Yet, we’ve managed to truncate the title. Let it fall to the wayside along with other (rather important) points of the message within the speech.
The entire title was…
…the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Martin Luther King Jr was the link between the civil rights and labor movements.
You see, his famous speech was an amalgamation of many of his earlier speeches on labor and the plight of blacks in 1960s America.
In a letter to Amalgamated Laundry Workers union in January 1962, Martin Luther King Jr said,
“As I have said many times, and believe with all my heart, the coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined.”
To the New York City Teamsters and Allied Trade Councils in May of 1967, he said,
“It is natural for Negroes to turn to the Labor movement because it was the first and pioneer anti-poverty program. It will not be easy to accomplish this program because white America has had cheap victories up to this point. The limited reforms we have won have been at bargain rates for the power structure. There are no expenses involved, no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities. Even the more substantial reforms such as voting rights require neither monetary or psychological sacrifice. The real cost lies ahead. To enable the Negro to catch up, to repair the damage of centuries of denial and oppression means appropriations to create jobs and job training; it means the outlay of billions for decent housing and equal education.”
Let’s also not forget that King was assassinated while preparing for another demonstration. This one for black sanitation workers. In 1968, they were demanding union rights from municipal authorities in Memphis.
So, the holiday began as a union demand in contract negotiations.
Those unions that King supported provided the financial and social capital needed to extend the movement nationwide.
Distributive Workers of America (DWA) leader, Cleveland Robinson, coordinated the support. Although, he made no promises about the success of their campaign. Robinson said, “We don’t want anyone to believe we hope Congress will do this. We’re just sayin’ Us black people in America just ain’t gonna work on that day anymore.”
So, by 1973, as the bill sat in Congress – doing nothing – working-class blacks did just that.
In the Meantime
Union officials demanded a paid holiday in contract negotiations. They also asked individual members to donate a “significant portion” of their holiday pay to support the campaign.
Some unions also contributed funds and made the holiday a standard contract demand.
During that time, public employees’ unions were gaining considerable economic and political clout.
The strength of those unions helped elect black mayors in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Atlanta.
Public employees often forced officials to acknowledge the holiday – even if opposed.
In 1976, the King Center focused its MLK Day celebration on the demand for full employment. Thousands of people joined with union members in full force.
That event brought about a coalition that helped elect Jimmy Carter president that year. He, in turn, endorsed the national holiday bill. He also ordered a commemorative stamp to honor King’s fiftieth birthday.
Well there you have it. The origins of Martin Luther King Day.
The first question I asked myself was how on earth can I take all this new information and present it to my children?
How can I help others do the same?
I began to think about current events. How had these past events affected where we are now? Did they have an effect? Or had we taken the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism”?
Had we turned this day into another holiday to give some trivia about a great human being? Just another day off from work.
With so much hatred still existing in our world, I did not want the struggle for this holiday to be in vain.
Could I take this day back and give it meaning for myself and for my children? Perhaps, in doing so, I could inspire others to do the same.
So, I started making plans and doing more research.
I wanted to start with something to engage them…without traumatizing them from the onset.
My kids love to sing. They love listening to music. And of course, dancing.
I decided to introduce them to the songs of that era. Of the Civil Rights and Labor movements. Specifically, the freedom songs.
Did you know there was such a thing as a Top 10 Civil Rights Protest Songs of All Time list? Bob Dylan, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday are on that list!
I found myself bouncing and swaying to operatic, gospel, blues and folk music.
I also wanted to show them footage of Martin speaking. Help them understand what a great orator he was as well.
In my opinion, no study of Martin Luther King Jr is complete without listening to two specific speeches.
“I Have a Dream” and “I Have Been to the Mountaintop”
Now, for those with younger children, I might hold off on the latter, just because it is almost an hour long. But, if your kids can hold on for the entire speech, go for it.
I will suggest that you listen to the “Mountaintop” speech before presenting it to your children. It is a presentation for a sanitation workers’ strike. It does get specific in mentioning brand names and removing economic support as a way of protest.
This was a dangerous speech in those days.
After all, Martin lived during a time where his speech was controversial. He was not the beloved figure he is now.
He was a troublemaker. In Martin’s words, it was a “dangerous unselfishness.”
So, it is no wonder that the proposal for a holiday in honor of his birth met with opposition.
The majority did not want King spoken of with the same reverence reserved for Washington and Lincoln.
It was even stated that enacting a holiday on his behalf would dishonor the memories of George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington – Negroes that provided American youth with positive examples.
Some believed King’s civil disobedience taught young people “contempt for the law.” They felt that a King holiday would continue to teach that lesson.
To squash thoughts about the holiday, members of Congress suggested a compromise.
Give the man a statue. Display it on Capitol grounds. It would be the first work of art memorializing a black American.
- It passed both houses during the 94th Congress (1975-76), but there was no time to consider the amendments. So, nothing happened.
- During the 95th Congress (1977-78), it passed the House but not the Senate. Interestingly, freshman Congressman, Newt Gingrich, spoke on behalf of the King statue.
- In the end the statue passed – supported by many who opposed the holiday – 408 to 11.
However, as is too often the case, financial crises tend to cause city officials to cut back on their benevolence. This was the case in the 1970s.
- Maynard Jackson of Atlanta attacked the striking union workers – who had helped his election efforts – by replacing them with non-union workers.
- Detroit Mayor Coleman Young dismissed city workers contract demands as “unrealistic” and to relieve the city budget, proposed moving King day to Sunday.
- Senator Jesse Helms led a national attack on the holiday movement. He stated that the “epidemic” of “illegal strikes of municipal employees” seemed to drive it.
Helms claimed the holiday would be too costly. He also said King was a lawbreaker “subject to influence and manipulation by Communists.”
These attacks contributed to the weakening of the campaign’s union allies.
That meant the King Center had to look for other means of support.
They launched a campaign to generate popular and corporate support.
It paid off.
- In 1980, Stevie Wonder dedicated his song “Happy Birthday” to King.
- In 1982, the King Center received a large donation from Coca-Cola (the same Coca Cola King urged to boycott in his “Mountaintop” speech)
- The King Center also received large donations from the Miller Brewing Company and other mega corporations.
- In addition, they gained admission to the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC). It is the official workplace giving campaign of the federal government. This allowed the Center to solicit donations from federal employees and members of the military.
Thus, Coretta Scott King was able to present Congress with 6 million signatures in favor of King Day bill. It was the largest petition in favor of an issue in US history.
And we think the GOP is in turmoil now
These days, many conservatives embrace King. But, let’s revisit this fascinating GOP battle.
The holiday campaign received a new sponsor in John Danforth, the new Republican Senator from Missouri. He urged his colleagues to join him in honoring King. He also served as a board member of Morehouse College, King’s alma mater.
During the joint hearing, led by Strom Thurmond:
- Alan Stang, author of It’s Very Simple: The True Story of Civil Rights, spoke clearly against the holiday by numbering King’s alleged Communist ties. He also argued that King’s purpose was to provoke violence through non-violence to grab the attention of “Americans of conscience.”
- A real live Communist, self-identified “loyal American Negro” Julia Brown, spoke against the holiday.
- Larry Macdonald then brought up affirmative action. He questioned whether King really felt racism was “repugnant in light of his support of discrimination in jobs and housing so long as the discrimination was in favor of blacks.”
- John Ashbrook submitted a written statement that said, “Rev. King’s motives are misrepresented.” He then questioned, “When will politicians learn to accept history as it really happened instead of history as told by the Washington Post?” Ashbrook was the only member to speak against the statue compromise.
The House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service reported the bill to the floor on October 23, 1979. Favorably.
The minority report left out any negative statements. It only included two objections. Cost and whether they should single out King above all other notable Americans.
A Favorable Vote
On November 13, 1979, a majority of House members (252 to 133) voted to enact a federal holiday on January 15 of every year.
Holiday supporters were able to get the bill on the docket December 5, 1979. However, congressional rules would allow opponents to delay action or attach weakening amendments to the bill.
- Republican Robert McCrory offered a pro-holiday substitute amendment. Change the date to the third Monday of the month to keep from mid-week interruptions.
- Opponents preferred the third Sunday of January. Republican Robin Beard of Memphis sponsored this amendment.
- Supporters objected to this amendment stating that it would be a holiday in name only.
- The McCrory amendment passed on December 5, 1979 (291 to 106).
- Ten minutes later, Beard’s amendment also carried (207 to 191).
- In response to Beard’s amendment passing, holiday supporters moved to withdraw the whole bill. Martin Luther King Day – on Monday or Sunday – was killed.
With the support from such powerhouses as Coca-Cola, Miller Brewing Company, and Stevie Wonder, the idea of an MLK holiday was given new life.
A New President
However, with a new and extremely conservative president, it was almost certain that a bill would be shot down once more.
What most did not consider was the new president’s ties to labor unions.
Ronald Reagan had been the president of Screen Actors Guild from 1947 to 1952. And again in 1959. During that time, he led SAG through several labor-management disputes. Most notably the Taft-Hartley Act, the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, and the Hollywood Blacklist era. (He was instrumental in getting future wife, Nancy Davis off the list.)
So, despite his conservative views, he was more sympathetic to the plight of the union worker.
Not to mention, in 1983, he was at his lowest point in approval ratings.
In Response to Non-response
Although President Reagan did not come out in support of the holiday proposal, he did say in a speech at the White House on King’s birthday,
“Though Dr. King and I may not have exactly had identical political philosophies, we did share a deep belief in freedom and justice under God. Freedom is not something to be secured in any one moment of time. We must struggle to preserve it every day. And freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. History shows that Dr. King’s approach achieved great results in a comparatively short time, which was exactly what America needed…What he accomplished – not just for black Americans, but for all Americans – he lifted a heavy burden from this country.”
The House committee once again reported the bill to the floor on July 26. And although Reagan disapproved of the bill, no one was fighting much at this point against the initiative. A Democrat party project that had been on the floor since 1968. They had already assumed Reagan was going to veto the bill.
On August 2, 1983, the bill passed the house (338 of 435 members). Of those 338, 249 were Democrats.
Among the 89 House Republicans voting yes:
- Dick Cheney
- Newt Gingrich
- Hamilton Fish
- Henry Hyde
- Dan Coats
- Jack Kemp
- Bob Michel
- Dan Lungren
Among the 77 who voted no:
- Phil and Dan Crane of Illinois
- Jim Jeffords
- Delbert Latta
- Trent Lott
- John McCain
- Ron Paul
No congressional opponent was more vocal than North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, however. He jumped on the Communist soap box and refused to get off. His rhetoric probably helped pro-holiday forces more than hurt them.
Thus, it was difficult for Republicans to associate themselves with King’s opponents. As a matter of fact, of the six who had voted against the holiday in 1979, five switched to yes on the floor vote of 1983. Orin Hatch being the only senator sticking to his guns.
Not even Strom Thurmond could go against the ant-King voices.
Because black voters were now in strong force, a direct assault on a symbol of black power and respect could be disastrous. Senators from the Deep South were voting in favor of the holiday.
President Reagan finally made his position public in favor of the bill and signed it on November 2, 1983. The nation observed the holiday for the first time on January 20, 1986.
Interestingly, opposition shifted from the South to the West. Most notably New Hampshire, where black populations were (and still are) among the lowest in the country.
During the 2010 Census, New Hampshire Demographics results:
- 93.9% White American (92.3% Non-Hispanic White, 1.6% White Hispanic)
- 2.2% Asian American
- 1.1% Black or African American (less than 1% in the 2000 and 1990 Census)
- 0.2% Native American/American Indian
- 1.6% Two or more races
- 1.0% Some other race
Siding against the holiday with North Carolina and New Hampshire were Idaho, Nebraska, Utah, South Dakota, and Iowa.
Although Arizona voted for the Martin Luther King Day holiday, new governor, Evan Mecham took it back. Causing a tourist boycott that lost Arizona the bid for the Super Bowl.
Later, Arizona voters approved Martin Luther King Day, making them the only state whose residents voted to celebrate the holiday.
In order to help my children sort out all the back and forth from the origins and passing of the holiday bill, I found this wonderful timeline.
By the time Martin Luther King Day became a national holiday in all 50 states, few remembered its labor union origins. My goal is to remind my children of those origins.
I want them to find meaning in the holiday. Significance for their lives. Not just a day for the postal offices and banks to close.
To remind them that when people of one mind come together against an injustice, they can accomplish something great.
Coretta Scott King penned so eloquently the meaning and the purpose for the Martin Luther King Day holiday here.
I didn’t toss my coloring sheets or timelines. Here are some great resources if you are looking for items to help you bring some meaning to the holiday for your students.
Martin’s “I Have a Dream” speech
Why reinvent the wheel? In this Big List of Martin Luther King Jr Homeschool Resources, you can find even more links to great information.