In Celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr

January 15, 2010 at 12:54 pm 4 comments

Use this story in your elementary school classroom. Your students may not be ready for all of the historical details of Dr. King’s legacy, but they will understand the heart of it.  © Sue Black, 2010

After the Civil War and for the next 100 years, the Southern states passed laws to make sure black people did not have the same rights as whites. There were signs all over Southern towns that said ‘White Only’.

How many of you love to go to the movies? How many of you like to walk right in the front door, buy a ticket, get some candy or gummi worms or popcorn before you head into the theatre? How many of you like to find a seat that’s perfect? Of course you do!

But what if there was a sign hanging over the door that said you couldn’t use the front door of the theatre? That’s how it used to be for black people. They couldn’t sit in the good seats at the movie theatre; those were saved for whites only. Black people had to use the back door, skip the popcorn, sit in the crowded balcony and not have a very good view of the movie at all.   All because the sign said – all because the law said – White Only.

How many of you get thirsty sometimes? Imagine if you were so thirsty you were searching, searching, searching for a water fountain. And you found one! Up ahead, right next to the park, you finally found a water fountain. But when you got close, when you were so thirsty you thought you might die if you didn’t get a drink, that’s when you saw the sign – that’s when you knew you’d have to keep looking — the water fountain was not for you. That’s how it was for blacks in the south. Signs over the water fountains said ‘White Only’.

How many of you like to swing or climb the monkey bars at the park? Imagine if you and your friend were ready to play. You had your bat and your ball, maybe a Frisbee too. Imagine if you ran up to that park and you had to stop and turn around and go home because there was a sign that said you couldn’t use it. There used to be signs like that in the south – White Only.

There was a young boy living in Atlanta, Georgia. He hadn’t yet learned how to read those signs. His nickname was M.L. – short for Martin Luther. Martin was smaller than most of the other 6-year-old boys in his neighborhood. He liked to ride his bicycle on the sidewalk in front of his house. Martin liked to fly homemade airplanes with his sister. And he loved to play ball with his little brother. Unfortunately, sometimes Martin and his brother got into fights. One time Martin got so mad he hit his brother in the head with the telephone. “Martin Luther King,” his mama said. “We don’t use a telephone upside the head to settle an argument. We don’t use our fists to settle an argument. Use your words, Martin. Try using a little bit of love with your brother.” Martin didn’t exactly know what his mama was talking about. But he said, “I’ll try, Mama. I’ll try.”

There was a store across the street from Martin’s house. The man who owned the store had a son who was Martin’s age. Martin and the store owner’s son loved to play together – every single day. Martin thought they were best friends. Until … one day … that little boy’s mother came out into the street. Martin and his friend were playing, laughing, just getting ready to get on their bikes. She towered over those two boys and stood right next to the bicycles. She looked at Martin and told him, “You can’t play with my son anymore. It’s almost time for school to start. You two boys won’t be going to the same school. I don’t want you playing with my son anymore.”  Tears welled up in Martin’s eyes. He looked at his friend. He looked at that boy’s mother. “But why? Why?” he asked. “Because my boy’s white.” she said. “I don’t want him playing with a colored boy anymore. I want him to play with his new white friends at his white school. Not you.”

Martin ran home as fast as he could. “Why, Mama? Why’d she say I can’t play with her boy? Why’d she say I can’t go to the same school? She called me ‘colored’, Mama. Why?”   Mrs. King sat down in her chair and Martin rushed into her arms. She pulled Martin into her lap, smoothed his hair down and wiped the tears from his eyes. “Martin, there’s white folks think we’re not smart enough or clean enough or good enough to be treated with respect. There’s laws that say we got to wait, let white folks go first. There’s laws that say you can’t go to school with white folks. Those laws been around a long time, Martin, but that doesn’t make them right. Those laws are mean and hateful. Now Martin Luther King, I want you to listen to me and I want you to listen well. Don’t you believe those mean words, Martin. You are as good as anyone.” Martin pushed back from his Mama and looked into her eyes. She said it again. “Don’t you believe those mean words, Martin. You are as good as anyone.” He took a deep breath and nodded just once. “Yes, Mama.”

On Sundays Martin and his family went to church together. Martin had to sit in the front row and be on his very best behavior. That’s because his daddy was the minister. Martin liked to listen to his daddy give the sermons. He liked his daddy’s big words. One Sunday a visiting preacher came to the church. He spoke in front of everybody. That preacher used some real big words too. Martin was impressed. Later that night Martin told his parents, “You just wait and see. When I grow up I’m going to get me some big words.”

A few years later, when Martin was just about your age (10), he was outside playing with his younger brother. Martin’s daddy walked up and said, “Martin, you need a new pair of shoes. Let’s go downtown.” Martin smiled. He liked spending time with his daddy. Everybody called his father ‘Daddy King’. Martin felt like a king walking down the street, holding hands with his father. The sun was shining. The sky was blue. Martin looked at his old shoes with a hole in the toe, worn out from playing. Martin smiled again.  When they got to the shoe store Martin and his daddy walked in the front door and sat down in one of the chairs near the big picture window. Martin’s feet were swinging back and forth. His eyes were bright as he looked at all of the new shoes to choose from. The smell of leather filled his nose. But then the store clerk walked over and said, “You can’t sit in these chairs. They’re for my white customers. If you want a pair of shoes you’ll move to the back of the store and wait with the other coloreds.”

Daddy King took a deep breath before he spoke. “We’ll either buy shoes sitting right here or we won’t buy any shoes at all!” The store clerk turned and walked away. Daddy King grabbed Martin’s hand and they left the store ….. no new shoes.

On the way back home, Martin’s daddy was walking real fast. “Daddy, Daddy, slow down!” But Mr. King just kept walking and Martin had to run to catch up. “Daddy?” He looked into his father’s angry face. “It is wrong, Martin. It is wrong. I am a man, an American, and Ideserve to be treated with respect! My children deserve to be treated with respect. Those laws are wrong!”   “I hate them, Daddy. I hate white people!” Martin said.   “We, son, will not hate the white people who hate us. We will instead respond with Christian love.”

When Martin was in high school he won a contest – he had given the best speech in his school. That meant he got to go on to the next level of the contest, in a city 100 miles away. On the morning of the speech competition, Martin wore a white shirt and a tie. He tried not to be nervous, but there were boys from all over the state at that contest and they could speak very well. Martin wiped his sweaty palms on his pants. He took a deep breath. Martin spoke with a big voice; he spoke with big words. “We cannot have an enlightened democracy ….unless we have opportunity for all people. If freedom is good for any, it is good for all!”  When all of the speeches had been delivered that day Martin learned he had won first prize!

On the bus ride home that night, Martin and his teacher were very happy. They talked and laughed and kept going over the details of Martin’s exciting win. The bus was crowded. Some white passengers got on the bus a few miles down the road. There was no room for them to sit down so the bus driver stopped the bus and walked back to Martin and his teacher. He pointed. “You. And you. Stand up now and give your seats to these white folks.” Martin didn’t want to; he was angry – the angriest he’d ever been in his whole life; he didn’t think he should have to move. But his teacher leaned over and whispered, “Stand up, Martin. It’s the law. Whites before blacks.” For the next 90 miles, Martin and his teacher stood on that bus.

Ten years later on a cold December day in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks was riding the bus home from work. A white man told her to get up so he could sit down. Rosa said no and she was arrested, taken to jail. When Martin heard about Rosa’s arrest it reminded him of the day he’d been so angry. Martin called a meeting at his church. A huge crowd of black people came. They were angry – they wanted action – some were collecting weapons so they could fight white people. Martin Luther King, Jr stood in front of that crowd of black people and said “No. No. We will not solve this problem with guns or fists or hate. We will solve this problem with our feet. We will not ride the bus until the law is changed and we can sit anywhere we want!”

For the next 381 days the buses were empty. Black people walked to work and school and church. Martin walked with them. The law was changed in Montgomery, Alabama.

Black Americans all over the South joined the movement to end those laws in every city. Martin Luther King, Jr. became the leader of that movement. They walked to theatres and schools and parks and restaurants and factories and offices. They were beaten and jailed and turned away. They did not stop. They were joined by more people – black and white, North and South. Martin walked with them and sang with them and prayed with them and he used his words to change America.

Can you help me with his words?

“We will not hate the white people who hate us. We will instead respond with Christian ______ (love).”

“Just because these White Only laws have been around a long time, that does not make them ______(right).”

We will no longer sit in the back of the ______(bus).

When we got to a restaurant or a theatre or a store we do not have to use the back _____ (door).

Our children deserve a good education. We do not have to go to a separate _____(school).

“We deserve to be treated with ____ (respect).

“We are as good as ______ (anyone).”

It took ten years. The laws were changed. The White Only signs came down.

A few years later Martin Luther King, Jr. died. His words – respect, love, freedom, right – for all Americans – are alive today.


Entry filed under: Teaching Artist.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Stacy Jaffe  |  February 2, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    I read your story to my 13 year old son. We were moved and he wanted to hear more. Thank you.


    • 2. Sue Black  |  February 2, 2010 at 7:58 pm

      You’re welcome! Glad you both enjoyed it. Keep in touch.

  • 3. Jill  |  February 22, 2010 at 4:04 am

    While looking for information of Martin Luther Senior, I ran across your page.

    What a wonderful way to explain the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. to children. It is so very important for children to relate in any way they can very early on. I believe it grows a sort of sympathetic passion in their hearts and shapes the types of people they will be as adults.

    My daughter is only 1. However, I am making it a point to save this story for her when she is a bit older.

    Thanks so much,

    • 4. Sue Black  |  February 22, 2010 at 7:10 am

      thanks so much, Jill! your comments encourage me to keep on keeping on! sue


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