3 Ways To (Actually) Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Portrait of Martin Luther King Jr in color

In a tweet, Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and CEO of The King Center, called on Americans to “strategically incorporate” her father’s teachings into our celebrations and commemorations on MLK Day this year.

She said we can do this in three ways: by reading his teachings beyond “I Have a Dream,” serving others and creating systemic change in our communities and around the world, and working to end racism.

We’ve put together a guide on how to take actual action steps in honor of King on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

How to incorporate Dr. King’s teachings in your 2024 MLK Day celebration:

1. Read the full teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., not just quotes or excerpts. 

You’ve likely seen or heard pieces of King’s teachings on Instagram, or in speeches made by leaders and politicians. While these quotes are undoubtedly powerful on their own ​​— what makes them truly impactful is the full context they were written in.

For example, people will use King’s famous quote, “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,” to advocate for “colorblindness” — or a world in which we don’t see race. 

But this was not the point of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at all.

The point of it was not to ignore skin color moving forward, but to recognize the ways injustices have occurred in the past — and are occurring in the present — based on the color of someone’s skin.

King wanted us to recognize that systemically, people of color have been treated unjustly — and those systems uphold injustices today. 

Only by recognizing the ways racism is woven into our systems can we hope to build better, more equitable, and just systems. 

And so Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the perfect time to read or listen to entire speeches, sermons, and teachings from King.

In addition to reading or listening to the fullI Have a Dream” speech, we also recommend:

  • Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which features the often-quoted, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
  • Our God is Marching On,” which features the popular quote, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” 

And, in 2024 Bernice King posted a thread on X (formerly known as Twitter) with recommendations on where to read or listen to her father’s words.

We’ve also compiled a comprehensive collection of King’s best quotes, including some of his more radical and lesser-known quotes that embody his mission. As a part of this, we’ve included as many citations as possible so that you can read the full context of any quote that strikes your interest.

Related: 50 Essential Civil Rights Speeches
The Best Quotes From Bernice King & Coretta Scott King

2. Create systemic change by taking a “day on” to advocate for voting rights for all

As Martin Luther King Jr. taught, America’s systems are built on a history of slavery, racism, and inequality — and they need to be changed to reflect the values we claim as a country. Values of fairness, justice, freedom, and equality for all. Currently, they do not. 

In a democracy, one of the best ways to create systemic change is to choose the people in power that write and enact the policies that organize our society, and by extension, each of our lives. 

An essential element of a functioning, fair democracy — the right to vote — is being rolled back in unprecedented ways.

In states all around the U.S. stricter voter identification laws are being put in place, mail-in and early voting are being restricted, polling locations are being moved and/or removed entirely.

In short, states are making it more difficult to vote. 

While voter turnout has seen record highs in recent elections (thanks in no small part to the advocacy work of Black women and community leaders like Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and Michelle Obama around the country), America still has frighteningly low voter turnout — especially in local and midterm elections.

In the 2020 presidential election, for example, The Census Bureau reported 67% of all citizens age 18 and older voted. While the good news is that this was a 5 percent increase from 2016 — the bad news is that when only two-thirds of eligible voters are deciding our leaders, representation suffers.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a lifelong advocate for voting rights, and his daughter Bernice King quoted him having said, “I think the tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided senators who will use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting.”

We have the unique opportunity to honor King's legacy by celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a “day on” to advocate for equitable voting rights.

Commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day by contacting your representatives in the U.S. Senate and asking them to pass voting rights legislation. And tell them that if it won't pass in a vote, you want them to change Senate filibuster rules to pass them.

You can also text 'MLK' to When We All Vote at 56005. They'll send you details you can use to call elected officials today.

3. Work to end racism in your own life by continuing to learn about antiracism — and taking action in your everyday life

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, — the acclaimed professor, author, and educator — wrote this about the topic of how to combat racism:

“No one becomes ‘not racist,’ despite a tendency by Americans to identify themselves that way. We can only strive to be ‘anti-racist’ on a daily basis, to continually rededicate ourselves to the lifelong task of overcoming our country’s racist heritage.”

In the process of dedicating ourselves to the task of overcoming racism, we have to educate ourselves. We can learn about covert white supremacy, follow organizations leading the way for racial equity and justice, watch films, listen to podcasts, and read books. 

And once we’ve learned better, as Maya Angelou said, “we can do better.”

Reading and listening to resources about how to be antiracist is only the first action step — we must also take action to implement what we learn in our lives.

You can implement antiracist work no matter who you are or what you do.

Hold the company you work for accountable for ensuring they are incorporating diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

On social media, uplift diverse voices providing free, educational resources — and if/when you have the opportunity and ability to do so, hire them.

In your family, call out racist actions or words when you see or hear them and remind them they can — and should! — do the same for you.

By intentionally learning from Martin Luther King Jr.’s full teachings, continuing his fight for the right to vote, and working to end racism — we can honor King on MLK Day and every day.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is MLK Day an official holiday?

Yes, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a nationally observed holiday. Thanks to advocacy from Coretta Scott King, in 19843 President Reagan signed a bill making the third Monday in January a federal holiday honoring King’s legacy — 15 years after King’s death.

What is the 2024 theme for Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

The 2024 theme for Martin Luther King Jr. Day is ‘Shifting the Cultural Climate through the Study and Practice of Kingian Nonviolence’. The theme is set by The King Center and will tie together the nonprofit’s programming throughout the entire year. The theme honors the pioneering work of King’s nonviolent pursuit of justice, peace, and love.

When was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday?

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. MLK Day is celebrated on the Monday closest to his birthday each year.

PS: Next month (February) is Black History Month. Get a head start researching action steps with these Black History Month ideas.

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January 14, 2024 8:02 PM
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