Find Us

Meaningful ways to celebrate Martin Luther King Day

Jayda Atkinson organizing the The Love Lives 365 MLK Day of Giving March
Jayda Atkinson organizing the The Love Lives 365 MLK Day of Giving March Copyright Jayda Atkinson
Copyright Jayda Atkinson
By Nicole Spector with NBC News Better
Published on
Share this articleComments
Share this articleClose Button

From books to movies to parades, here's how to bring hope and meaning to your Martin Luther King Day holiday.


My well of positive thinking has run dry and I struggle to see how our nation, so painfully divided, can ever come together. So this Martin Luther King Day, I've decided I'll focus on replenishing my faith in the good of humankind. What better day to aim to rejuvenate hope than on a day dedicated to the legacy of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., the visionary and activist who helped pioneer the Civil Rights Movement?

I've brought this idea of recognizing MLK Day as a period to renew one's sense of hope in our nation's future to Lopez Matthews, Jr., PhD, digital production librarian for the Howard University Libraries and the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.

"I think that is the purpose of King Day," Matthews says. "That was the main drive of the Civil Rights Movement: hope. Martin Luther King became the face of a movement that was all about the idea that this nation can be better if we all come together and work towards making it a better place."

Dr Bernice A. King, CEO, The King Center, expanded on this sentiment, telling NBC News in an email: "My father's ultimate dream was to have people from all backgrounds come together and celebrate our differences as well as our commonalities. My mother, Coretta Scott King, put that dream into action by establishing The King Center. The are many ways to give back and honour the spirit of my father not only on this King holiday, but every day, and make this time of commemoration meaningful."

Here's a look at some of the many things we can do this MLK Day (and, as Bernice King notes, beyond it) to restore our hope and honour MLK's work.

Go deeper into MLK's speeches

Dr Michael J. Durfee, assistant professor of History, director, Africana/Black Studies minor at Niagara University calls our immediate attention recommends reading some of MLK's powerful but lesser known speeches and writings.

Durfee specifically recommends Dr King's 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Address.

"King dedicated his address to what he called 'the most pressing problem' facing humanity: 'poverty of spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance,'" says Durfee. "As technology, economic inequality and political polarization cleave us still today, we must consider what constitutes a wealthy society. King's War on Poverty remains unfulfilled as does his vision that society learn 'the simple art of living together as brothers.'"

You can access an archive of King's speeches here.

Organise (or participate in) a Giving March

MLK was devoted to helping form a respectful, diverse community. Take this as a chance to get out of your comfort zone and interact with people you may not be involved with on a daily basis.

"I organized a Giving March on MLK Day to remind others one of the most important beliefs Dr King stood for and that's making sure everyone felt loved and equal while showing children of all ages the importance of giving and gratitude," says Jayda Atkinson, founder of the Love Lives Foundation.

"We met in downtown Atlanta, marched up Peachtree Street giving food and spreading joy to anyone who wanted to receive it. Our final stop was the Gateway Shelter where we provided lunch, toiletries and household goods to individuals transitioning to permanent housing. It was one of the best giving experiences."

Jayda Atkinson
Jayda Atkinson organizing the The Love Lives 365 MLK Day of Giving MarchJayda Atkinson

Attend a local MLK Parade with kids

If you're home with the kids, this is a great opportunity to enlighten them to the Civil Rights Movement and King's pioneering work.

Melinda Harris, franchise field consultant, at Children's Lighthouse, notes that there are many ways to impart the meaning of MLK Day with children.

"Attend an MLK parade in your town. Explain to children, in a developmentally appropriate way, why the people are celebrating the life of MLK. Help them to understand that no matter what someone looks like, the work of MLK supported people's right to be valued as an individual.

Though Harris recommends this as a great activity for kids, anyone interested in celebrating the legacy of MLK should consider. The best way to find a parade in your vicinity is to do a Google search. If you're in a metropolis, you'll probably find several options.

Take in an MLK documentary or film

Chloe Robinson, a professor and assistant department chair of Purdue University Global, encourages her adult students to spend time reflecting on the holiday. If you're not willing or able to get out and about, you can do this by watching a relevant documentary, film or reading a book.

"[MLK' challenged the narrative about race in our country and helped us recognize the beauty in embracing diversity," says Robinson. "The 'Eyes on the Prize' documentary series and the movie 'Selma' are all great places to start if people want to further reflect on MLK's contributions to America."


Watch a program with kids that highlights diversity — and then break out the crayons

If you're gathering around the TV with kids who may be too young to fully grasp the holiday, choose a program that showcases diversity.

"Try sitting down with them to watch television shows that feature diverse casts," says Harris. "Programs that show a diverse group of characters living their daily lives together and working together to solve challenges are perfect. Watch the program together, be prepared to answer questions like, 'Why does his mommy have dark skin and his daddy have light skin?' Follow up the viewing with some art time together. Provide crayons and markers with a variety of skin tone colours [and] have fun drawing family portraits together."

Books galore and for all ages

You've no shortage of books that can help impart King's legacy and its lasting importance.

For children aged 5 to 8, Keira Pride, head librarian at Stratford School, recommends "Enough! 20 Protestors Who Changed America" by Emily Easton.

Enough! 20 Protesters Who Changed America

"This book is a great springboard for discussions about what it means to make an impact, and how Martin Luther King Jr. was one of many individuals who changed America."


Middle-grade readers with interest in superheroes may appreciate books like "The Stupendous Adventures of Mighty Marty Hayes" by Lora L. Hyler.

"I feature American history through black spies and key figures such as Ruby Bridges and Josephine Baker, along with Dr King," says Hyler. "Since my novel's March 2018 publication date I've enjoyed school visits, book festivals, education and library conferences all over the country. The kids' eyes just light up when I note that Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. is part of the book."

For more reading ideas, consider these recommendations provided by Hoopla Digital.

For adults:

For young kids:


For teens:

  • "March: Book One" by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin; illustrated by Nate Powell.

If you're in the mood for a gripping novel, check out Oprah Book Club 2018 pick "An American Marriage" by Tayari Jones.

Visit your local library — many are hosting special MLK events

If you have the time, take an opportunity to actually go to a library or bookstore on MLK Day with your kids to select reading material.

"Help your child find books that identify with themselves and those that are different from them," says Harris.

Many public libraries are hosting MLK day events, activities and exhibits that are great for kids (take, for example, the Milwaukee Public Library's itinerary). Check with your local branch to see if they're doing something special.


Plant a tree as a symbol of growth

Vernic Popat, CFO of, planted a tree with her children a few years back on MLK Day. Her motivation wasn't only to sow a symbol of growth, but also to build a positive association for her children.

Courtesy of Vernic Popat
Vernic Popat\'s kids with the tree they planted on Martin Luther King DayCourtesy of Vernic Popat

"Now every time my kids go apple picking, they remember [Martin Luther King, Jr.'s] greatness and what he stood for: change."

We're in a tense time. Trust the process.

This is one of the more chaotic times we've known as a nation in the days since King was among us. Perhaps the most important thing you can do this MLK day is to believe. Believe and trust that these turbulent days are a necessary phase in our collective growth as a society.

"In the closing words of his [Nobel Peace address], King reminded the world: 'In spite of the tensions and uncertainties of this period something profoundly meaningful is taking place,'" quotes Durfee. "'Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away, and out of the womb of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born.' Uncertain times while scary, are also an opportunity for growth, meaningful change and healing."

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Share this articleComments

You might also like