Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most prominent leaders in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. King is a prime example of how one person can truly make a difference in the world, making him an inspiring person to learn about and emulate.
To find out more about this fantastic figure in history, here are some interesting Martin Luther King Jr. facts for kids, along with some great resources parents and teachers can use with their families or students.
Martin Luther King Jr. Facts for Kids: Biographical Information
When teaching about historical figures, it's important to have a background of their life. This can help kids see them as real, relatable people. For instance, Dr. King was not just an activist, he was a son, a brother, a father, a husband, and a pastor. These are defining qualities that made MLK Jr. an amazing person who helped to make a change in America.
You can start with areas of Dr. Martin Luther King's life and then expand on areas that make sense for your population, curriculum, and time frame. Colours of Us suggests over a dozen children's books about various parts of Dr. King's life that can accompany lessons including:
- I Am Martin Luther King, Jr. by Brad Meltzer - Great for kindergarten-aged kids, this picture book features cartoon-style pictures and speaks to Dr. King's ability to make a change in the world.
- Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Doreen Rappaport - Recommended for elementary students, this book uses quotes from Dr. King's speeches to talk about his life.
- Who Was Martin Luther King, Jr.? by Bonnie Bader - An early chapter book with black and white pictures, this story focuses on the historical significance of Dr. King's actions.
When kids can see bits of their lives and personalities in a historical figure, it makes that person more realistic and relatable. Through a brief childhood history, children will see that, just like them, Dr. King made mistakes and had parents who made many choices in his life.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born Michael King Jr. in 1929 in Georgia. He had an older sister, Willie Christine, and a younger brother, Alfred. Together they grew up with their parents, Michael King Sr. and Alberta, in a highly religious and respected family in Atlanta, Georgia.
Michael Sr. became a pastor in a huge church a few years after Michael Jr. was born. Young Michael was a smart kid, but not one who obeyed his parents at all times or stayed out of trouble. Education World offers a list of 15 lesson plans featuring biographical information about Dr. King for all age groups.
To embrace his spiritual beliefs, Michael Sr. changed his name to Martin Luther honoring the German Protestant leader of that name. Because they shared a name, Michael Sr. also changed his five-year-old son's name to Martin Luther in 1934.
In grade school, Dr. King was incredibly smart, skipping the 9th and 11th grades. Then, at the age of 15, Dr. King started college at Morehouse College in Atlanta where he earned a degree in Sociology.
Despite his high level of intelligence, he was not a highly motivated student. He had no interest in following the family legacy and becoming a minister. In fact, he often questioned his faith.
This all changed in his last year of college, Dr. King decided to head to the ministry after all. King then moved on to Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania where he graduated as Valedictorian in 1951. At the age of 25, Dr. King graduated with his doctoral degree from Boston University.
Martin Luther King Jr. also received 18 honorary degrees, including multiple Doctor of Laws and Doctor of Divinities. These came from his alma maters as well as schools like Yale University.
Dr. King's positions as pastor were limited to two churches. In 1947, Dr. King accepted the position of pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where his father and grandfather both served as ministers. He worked at this church up through 1954 then left to accept a position as pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Five years later, Dr. King was called on by Ebenezer Baptist Church to serve as co-pastor with his father and he accepted. Dr. King served at this church until his death.
Civil Rights Movement
These topics can be difficult to cover with children because so much of Dr. King's work was shrouded by violence. But keeping media and presentations age-appropriate and sharing key facts can help kids learn more about his powerful work.
In the early 1950s, Dr. King became heavily involved in the rising Civil Rights Movement to gain basic human rights and equal treatment for people of color.
He was inspired by Gandhi's civil disobedience and sought to use non-violent tactics as a means to force changes in the United States. History.com highlights the timeline of events and accomplishments Dr. King was involved in during the movement, which includes the following:
- 1955/1956 - Dr. King was chosen by activists to lead and speak for the bus boycott.
- 1957 - Dr. King, along with other ministers and activists, created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The group agreed to use only non-violent tactics to gain equality for all African Americans.
- 1963 - Dr. King was arrested for his involvement in the sit-ins, boycotts, and other non-violent protests in Birmingham, Alabama.
- 1963 - Dr. King organized the March on Washington, where approximately 300,000 peaceful protesters marched to the capital city where he gave his famous I Have a Dream speech.
- 1964 - Dr. King became the youngest person in history to earn a Nobel Peace Prize.
- 1965 - Dr. King leads the Selma March after the brutal treatment of protesters in Selma, Alabama was broadcasted on television. The march took place at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, now a historic landmark, in the image below.
- 1967 - The Poor People Campaign was steered by Dr. King and the SCLC to broaden the scope of civil rights to poor people.
Awards and Accolades
In 1964, Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the field of human rights. While this was perhaps his most prestigious award, Dr. King also received awards from organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT.)
In addition, Dr. King has been honored in several ways after his death including:
- 1983 - After passing votes in the House of Representatives and the Senate, President Ronald Reagan made the third Monday in January a federal holiday to celebrate Dr. King, promote civil rights and nonviolence, and encourage people to participate in public service.
- It took over 30 years for this holiday to take shape and be recognized by the whole country.
- 2011 - A national memorial was opened in Washington, D.C. depicting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The monument is one of few in honor of non-presidents and the only one to honor a Black man.
- Dozens of streets, parks, schools, and churches carry Dr. King's name in honor of his work.
You can learn about his life and greatest achievements with timelines, biographies, and related activities from Scholastic.
Martin Luther King Jr. Facts for Students: His Impact on Others
Dr. King impacted the people of his time, the government of his time, and both entities in today's world. Help kids to see the scope of Dr. King's work and how his words and actions continue to effect change long after his death.
The National Education Association offers dozens of lesson plans, activities, and resources separated into three grade levels: K-5, 6-8, and 9-12. You can also find free printable activities, lesson plans, and book recommendations at Free Homeschool Deals.
Get Historical MLK Jr. Facts for Kids Through Media
Add a multimedia component to your lessons or relate to your kids with movies related to Dr. King's life, the Civil Rights movement, and set in the period of his life.
- Our Friend Martin (1998) - Ideal for younger kids, this movie combines animation and real-life footage as kids travel back in time to meet Dr. King.
- Selma Lord Selma (2004) - Set in 1965, this Disney movie is recommended for kids ages 8-12 and is based on a true story about a little girl in Alabama who gets inspired by Dr. King's messages.
- The Watsons Go to Birmingham (2013) - Rated PG, this movie is based on the book of the same title and follows a family of five as they head to the racially divided Birmingham, Alabama, which is the matriarch's hometown.
His Continuing Impact
Decades after his death, Dr. King's work continues to impact lives. In 2016, the Charlotte Observer asked current activists, politicians, and ministers to share their thoughts on what Dr. King would like about today's world. Responses include references to our first African American President, Barack Obama, the Affordable Care Act, and the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Dr. King's work was a champion of equal rights and just treatment for all people.
More Ways Kids Can Learn About Martin Luther King Jr.
Children of all ages can participate in activities and lessons related to Dr. King's life and work. For more fun ideas check out these resources:
- Activity Village features 10 easy kids crafts related to equality, diversity, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Find over a dozen coloring pages featuring Dr. King's image and quotes at Best Coloring Pages for Kids.
- The National Park Service offers 14 lesson plans for kids in grades Pre-K to 8, each covering a specific aspect of Dr. King's life or work.
- Free online games, like interactive puzzles and word searches, are available on the kid's website Primary Games.
The Past Influences the Future
When great people embrace their mission and their unique abilities, they make changes that outlast their lives. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one such person who saw a need and used his talents to affect change in the world across decades. While he is only one of the many people who took part in the Civil Rights movement, his accomplishments are an important part of history.