On January 15th each year, we celebrate the birthday of civil rights leader, activist, and orator Martin Luther King Jr. While today’s civil rights landscape still has a ways to go before achieving true equality, MLK’s historic contributions to racial justice for Black Americans are undeniable. On the third Monday of January every year, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. by closing schools and offices, but people must remember that MLK Day is about more than just having a day off. It has come to be recognized as a day of service nationwide, so take some time during these 24 hours to do something that honors King’s values and his revolutionary place in American history.
Below are nine meaningful ways to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
1Educate yourself, because history classes rarely gave us the whole truth.
The ways in which the topic of race in America is taught in history classes around the country varies drastically, so make sure that you have a good understanding of why there is a day dedicated to MLK. Read some of King’s books, read books about him written by Black authors, explore his more radical ideology, and take note of his letters, which paint him as more than a peaceful martyr.
2Talk to your older family members.
For Black Americans—especially those with relatives who grew up in the South—talking to your older family members could be especially enlightening. Many of us have grandparents who are living history, and who may very well have attended a protest or watched King on television.
3Talk to the problematic folks.
We all know some problematic people—and they are often the people closest to us. If you are someone who benefits from the systems oppressing minorities and Black Americans, then you have a duty to end the cycle of ignorance. Educate yourself, and equip yourself with various ways to fight white supremacy. Then pass this information along to those family members, friends, and neighbors who have trouble understanding the importance of racial justice.
4Do some good.
It is a day of service, after all—but make sure that giving back to the community doesn’t begin and end with January 15th. If you are able to go out and give your time by cleaning up neighborhoods, serving at a soup kitchen, or just spending time with members of a community in need, then start by searching for volunteer opportunities near you. The Corporation for National and Community Service allows you to search its database for local and national MLK Day volunteer opportunities. Consider “virtual volunteering” if you have mobility concerns or time constraints.
Use King’s message of acceptance and justice for the marginalized to inspire your art. Write. Paint. Make music. Whatever mode of expression you prefer, use the day as a springboard to let your talent be your activism—like other artists who are taking a stand against hate.
6Support organizations that fight for racial justice.
In the midst of educating yourself and those around you, don’t forget to support organizations that make it their mission to fight against racial injustice. Join a protest, raise funds, and learn more about the work that Black Lives Matter and other organizations are doing to empower Black communities.
7Support a Black-owned business.
You can’t have equality without equity, and Black business owners often face additional barriers to their success because of their race. For a day that is about giving back, you can also empower individuals by supporting Black businesses in your community or online.
8Go on an informative trip.
If you can make it to D.C., visit the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History. And if you can’t make it to D.C., search for free events. Many cities have special museum exhibits on MLK Day or even put on concerts dedicated to the spirit of King’s legacy.
9Watch films about King’s life.
Start with Our Friend, Martin because it has been shown in almost every classroom during the month of January. Although it is an animated film, it features historical footage of King at different points in his life. Then watch Ava Duvernay’s Selma to find out that King lived a life that was much more complex than the image we have been sold. Not all of his contemporaries agreed on his methods, and some of King’s views on capitalism and the Vietnam War were considered to be radical during his time.
However you choose to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., you should make it more impactful than just sleeping in. And instead of reflecting on King’s message for a day, find ways to make activism a consistent part of your life.