Here are 6 ideas to make MLK Day a little more meaningful:
1. Read Dr. King’s writings – After watching his “I Have A Dream Speech,” read Dr. King's words in order to better understand who he was and what he believed. Re-read “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Then poke around in Stanford University’s King Papers Project, which is publishing the definitive collection of King’s writings, including his college dissertation, his first recorded sermon (delivered while still a student at Boston University), his private correspondence with U.S. Presidents (including JFK), and nearly all of his historic speeches.
2. Visit your local historical society – Chances are you have a historical society where you live, and chances are you haven’t been—at least not for a while. (Those who have, bravo!). This little historical society right in your backyard is probably mounting an exhibit on Dr. King, the Civil Rights Movement, or other related topics that specifically connect to your community’s heritage. Check it out. Want a list of where to go in your state? Check out this easy-to-use online directory.
3. Listen to an oral history – For decades, institutions nationwide have diligently collected the stories of participants in the Civil Rights movement. You can hear these incredible stories for free online or by visiting a library (remember libraries?). Where to start? Check out the Ralph J. Bunch Collection at Howard University for interviews with national, state and local civil rights activists. Also check out the oral histories in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Oral Histories of the American South at University of North Carolina, and the Civil Rights oral histories collected by Washington State University. Google “Civil Rights oral histories” for countless other repositories.
4. Talk to an elderly person in your community– Chances are you know someone born before 1940. That person will remember what it was like to grow up in a racially segregated America. This person may remember the 1948 integration of the U.S. military, the Brown v. Board of Ed decision in 1954, and the signing of landmark Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s. S/he will likely remember when “separate but equal” was considered permissible under the Constitution. S/he will also likely offer a unique perspective on life during that time period, some of which may confirm the popular narrative you’re familiar with, and some of which may contradict it. Embrace that difference, and attempt to reconcile it with what you know.
5. Visit the Library of Congress (online or in person) – Not just because I work there. The Library of Congress is the authoritative source for knowledge on history, culture and the American experience. Millions of resources are available, all entirely, 100% free. Are you a teacher? Here are some Civil Rights-related lesson plans. Into photography? Here’s a photo exhibit about Dr. King and the March on Washington. Just want to see something cool from that era? Here’s a Jackie Robinson comic book from 1951. Or maybe you want to be inspired on your day off by the words of the U.S. Poet Laureate? Natasha Tretheway uses American history and her experience growing up as a mixed-race child in the segregated South to give voice to the contradictory elements of American life. This poem is about a visit to a museum in Vicksburg and the shadows of the Civil War will give you goose bumps.
6. Do something for others – Since 1994, the Federal Government has worked to make MLK Day synonymous with a Day of Service. MLKDay.gov lists hundreds of ways to give back. Intimidated by formal volunteering? Don’t want to wake up at 8 a.m. on your day off? That’s understandable. You’re not a bad person! Sleep ‘til noon and then spend a few hours doing something meaningful. Donate money to charity. Donate clothing to a shelter. Share a link to a cool nonprofit on your Facebook page. Ask that same nonprofit if there are ways you can be involved. Sign up to be a mentor. Teach a class. Hold a door for a stranger. Call your grandma.
You’ve earned MLK day off. Take an hour to make the day worthy of the man whose name it bears. Be reminded that a little recognition of history, and the lives that have come before us, can go a long way toward enriching our own.
Recently named one of D.C.'s "50 on Fire" by In the Capital, Jason Steinhauer is a writer and thinker on the role of public history in America, particularly how history gets translated and understood by the public through cultural institutions such as museums, schools, and public commemorations. A communications and program manager at the Library of Congress, his writings have been included on The White House blog, the Library of Congress blog, and the blog of the National Council on Public History. On Twitter: @JasonSteinhauer