About the Holiday
Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrates the life and legacy of the man who dedicated his life and work to teaching—as Coretta Scott King stated—“the values of courage, truth, justice, compassion, dignity, humility and service” and led a non-violent Civil Rights movement to enact racial equality and justice throughout state and federal law. President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, setting it on the third Monday of January to coincide with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday on January 15. The holiday was officially observed in all 50 states in 2000. Today, learn more about the life and work of Martin Luther King and how you can help promote justice and equality for all. Consider volunteering in your community where help is needed.
I am Martin Luther King, Jr.
Written by Brad Meltzer | Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
Standing inside a church, Martin Luther King, Jr. introduces himself with two anecdotes from his childhood that demonstrate his world outlook. “When I was little,” he says, “I used to get into a lot of accidents.” He was hit in the head by a baseball bat, knocked down by cars and once even “tumbled over our banister, then bounced through an open door into the basement.” While these incidents could have made him cautious, Martin instead was determined to keep “getting back up.” His second influence were the books in which he could find “big words.” Even as a child Martin recognized that “there is power in words.”
Before he went to school, Martin relates, his best friend was a white boy whose father owned a nearby store. They did everything together until school started. Then Martin went to a school with only black students while his friend went to a white-students-only school. Soon, Martin’s friend told him his father didn’t want them to play together anymore. Martin was confused. When his parents told him the reason was that they had different colored skin, Martin felt angry. He wanted to hate his friend and his father, but Martin’s parents taught him to love his friend, and his mother told him, “you must never feel that you are less than anyone else.”
It was a difficult lesson when all around him he saw inequality. White schools had better equipment, there were different elevators, bathrooms, water fountains, and other facilities for black people and white people, on buses black riders had to give up their seats to white riders. Everywhere black people and white people were segregated.
When Martin was only 15 he was admitted to college. At 19 he entered the seminary where he learned about civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance—ways to use “love and peaceful methods to change unfair things in society.” These were lessons Martin wanted to share with others. His chance to put his thoughts into action came when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat to a white man. Martin advocated a peaceful protest—a boycott of public buses. He reasoned that without the money from black riders, the bus companies would change their policies.
As the boycott began working, Martin gave a speech in Montgomery, Alabama, motivating people to continue their peaceful protest. Martin was put in jail and his house was bombed, but the boycott continued for more than a year. Eventually, the bus companies changed their rules. Other peaceful protests began to take place in restaurants and other public places.
One protest took place in Birmingham, Alabama. Martin was again put in prison, where he wrote one of his most famous speeches. Children also took part in the Birmingham protest. The Children’s Crusade attracted more than 1,000 kids. On the first day 900 of them were arrested, but that only inspired the children more. On the second day 2,500 children showed up. They stood firm while they were sprayed with water hoses and attacked by police dogs. People—both black and white—watching the news reports were aghast. Three months later the rules began to change.
“By the summer of 1963, an estimated one million Americans held their own protests in cities across the country.” Then A. Philip Randolph suggested a single huge march to convince “Congress and the president to pass laws so that no one in America can treat people differently based on skin color.” On August 28, 1963 the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place. Martin gave what may now be considered his most famous speech in which he talked about his dreams for the country, for the people, and for their children.
Although Congress began passing new laws, the ability and right to vote in elections still eluded black people. To change the voting rules another march was organized to walk 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery Alabama. The 600 walkers were met by police who stopped them. Two days later 2,500 activists tried again but could not get through. On the third try 8,000 marchers showed up. This time, with the world watching on television, the activists made it to Montgomery, protected by troops sent by President Johnson.
Martin continued to speak out, relating his philosophy and dreams for the nation. “To reach our goals, we must walk the path of peace,” he said. “We must lock arms with our brothers and sisters. We must march together. When we do…Our voices will be heard, and freedom will ring.” The lessons Martin Luther King taught still resonate today. He stands “as proof that no matter how hard the struggle, we must fight for what is right and work to change what is wrong.…if we stand together, if we remain united, nothing can stop our dream.”
Brad Meltzer’s Ordinary People Change the World: I am… series of biographies are well-known for showing young readers that they can achieve their dreams and make a difference no matter what those hopes may be. In his biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Meltzer depicts several incidents from King’s childhood and early adulthood that influenced his future work. These help readers understand not only the types of prejudice King and other African Americans experienced, but also the people who inspired his philosophy of peace.
Meltzer’s inclusion of King’s imprisonments and the violence that met the peaceful protesters deepens the understanding of the dangers King and other protesters faced, and provides an opportunity to open a discussion between adults and children about those times and what they now see in the news. Meltzer’s description of the Children’s Crusade will inspire readers, making them proud of children in the past and stirring them to actions of their own. Sections from King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and his most famous speeches are presented in speech bubbles. The text is followed by photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. with his family and at the March on Washington as well as a timeline of his life. Sources and resources for further reading are also included.
In keeping with the style of all of Meltzer’s and Christopher Eliopoulos’s Ordinary People Change the World: I am… biographies, the illustrations are vibrant and cartoon-inspired. Martin Luther King, Jr. is depicted with the size of a child but the features of an adult, reinforcing the idea contained in the text of the dual nature of the future adult residing in the child and the ideals of the child remaining in the adult that appeals to ambitious young readers. Speech bubbles highlight text that carry emotional dialogue. Settings, including churches, Birmingham jail, Washington DC, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument give children a look at the cities and places described in the text.
For young readers, I am Martin Luther King, Jr. offers a comprehensive biography of the man who was a national and world leader in the fight for equal rights for all people and makes an excellent starting place for classroom lessons and personal discussions.
Ages 5 – 8
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2016 | ISBN 978-0525428527
Discover more about Brad Meltzer and his books for adults and children as well as other goodies on his website!
Learn more about Christopher Eliopoulos, his books, and his comics on his website!
Martin Luther King Jr. Day Activity
Martin Luther King, Jr. Portrait
Color this printable Martin Luther King, Jr. Portrait and then hang it in your room or locker to inspire you!
Picture Book Review