Taking the Kids: Celebrating Martin Luther King
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said. "Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that."
These words, and many others attributed to Dr. King, have been carved into the stone at the Martin Luther King Memorialin Washington, D.C. In this era of public discord and street violence, what would Dr. King say to us today?
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr's birthday this month, and African American History Month in February, there's probably no better time to start that conversation with the kids. They're likely studying Martin Luther King's accomplishments in school -- 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of his assassination on April 4, 1968.
Continue the conversation by visiting museums and historic sites that can help put the civil rights struggle in context for 21st-century kids. The National Park Service is waiving their entrance fees on January 15 and there is a new webpage for the holiday that lists some of the upcoming events centered around Dr. King's life and the civil rights movement, including the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Kansas and in Alabama, the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument and Freedom Riders National Monument.
In Washington, D.C.: The latest exhibit, physically housed at the National Museum of American History, is "City of Hope: Resurrection City and the 1968 Poor People's Campaign," a production of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. City of Hope was a six-week tent city set up on the National Mall to highlight the struggle for racial equality. It is considered Dr. King's final and most ambitious campaign before his death.
The "City of Hope" exhibit includes rare film and new oral histories, and reminds us that "...despite the unprecedented economic growth in America over the past five decades, there are still many Americans living below the poverty line. Although the Poor People's Campaign did not achieve its goal of eradicating poverty, it spawned a multiethnic and multiracial movement for economic fairness whose belief in helping America live up to its ideals still inspires to this day," said Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Exhibits on civil rights encompass an entire floor at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, offering everything from a dress worn by civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, who in 1955 refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, sparking a bus boycott led by Dr., to a display on the Black Lives Matter movement.
(Since its opening in September 2016, entrance to the Museum of African American History and Culture e has proved the hottest ticket in town, though it is free. (Reserve timed passes far in advance, though there are a limited number of same-day online and walk-in passes. And check out Washington.org, which offers pages of listings on sites and exhibits about the civil rights movement, as well as the new edition of my "Kid’s Guide to Washington, D.C.")
Another good bet in Washington, D.C., is the new exhibit "1968: Civil Rights at 50," at the Newseum, which tells the dramatic story of the growing militancy of the struggle a half-century ago. Here are six other excellent options around the country, though you are bound to find something near where you live or plan to visit:
In Jackson, Mississippi, the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, the first state-funded civil rights museum, has won high marks for honestly telling the story of the struggle for civil rights and the continuing efforts today. It offers interactive exhibits and stories from people who fought for civil rights in Mississippi.
In Atlanta, visit The King Center and the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site, which includes King's birth home, the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he was a pastor and his gravesite. Since its founding by Dr. King's widow in 1968, The King Center (and historic sites) has become a global destination and resource center visited by a nearly a million people each year. (There is also an exhibit at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.)
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In Philadelphia, where there are celebrations at several museums, The Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site commemorates Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with three days of free community programs that run from Saturday, Jan. 13 through Monday, Jan. 15, 2018. The historic prison offers special readings of Dr. King's 1963 landmark text "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," as well as opportunities for visitors to respond to its relevance in light of recent clashes between civil rights protesters and police. Additional programming is available Monday, Jan. 15, including family arts and crafts projects, children's stories and community electronics recycling.
In case you're wondering why the month of February was chosen when Martin Luther King Jr's birthday is in mid-January, it's because the precursor was a February "Negro History Week," which was created in1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Several notable birthdays of those important to the cause of civil rights fell during the month of February, namely Abraham Lincoln's (Feb. 12) and Frederick Douglass' (who celebrated his birthday on Feb. 14). It wasn't until 1976, as part of the bicentennial celebration, that the expansion to a month was officially recognized by the U.S. government, though Kent State University started the month-long celebration six years earlier.
-- In Memphis, the National Civil Rights Museum traces the civil rights movement in the United States from the 17th century onward. It is built around the former Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
-- In Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry’s Black Creativity program kicks off on Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and runs through Feb. 21, spotlighting the achievements made by African-Americans through hands-on workshops and events in the museum's Black Creativity Innovation Studio.
"I have a dream," Dr. King told more than 250,000 supporters on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that memorable August day in 1963, which proved to be a seminal moment in the civil rights movement.
"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."
Fifty years after Dr. King's death, we can only hope we will achieve his dream one day.