A Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Curriculum: Playing the Dream

by Sydney Gurewitz Clemens, As it appeared in Young Children, January, 1988

Including an audio clip of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous 1963 speech, “I Have a Dream“, and a clip from the speech, “Promised Land“.

Bibliography from My 1987 Article

Bibliography from My 1987 Article

Juvenile Picture Books

(Note: All these books are too old for 4-year-olds. Use the pictures and tell the story. Don’t emphasize the murder, but rather focus upon the work on behalf of the community. (We know other stuff about Lincoln and Kennedy than that they were assassinated.) Leave the books around for children to look at.)

Davidson, M. (1986). 1 have a dream. New York: Scholastic.
Tells King’s story in a Black history context. Good photos.

de Kay, J. T. (1969). Meet Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Random House.
Good photos and a few drawings.

<span “>Hunter, N. (1985). Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Bookwright Press.

<span “>Lowery, L. (1987). Martin Luther King Day. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda.
Too much text for one sitting;  could be read a couple of pages at a sitting. Clear language and concepts, more upbeat and constructive than many of the others.

McKissack, P.C. (1986). Our Martin Luther King Book. Elgin, IL: The Child’s Distributed by Children’s Press, 1224 W. Van Buren St., Chicago, IL 60607.
I’d read this one in two or three sittings. It takes a kindergarten class through the i ideas of civil rights and prejudice, includes the music and words to “We Shall Overcome,” has beautiful llustrations—some photos but mostly drawings—and suggests that children make their own book about Dr. King.   This  book  uses the King holiday to help children understand many things, including the ways  we celebrate.  My favorite. Patterson, L. (1977).

Medearis, Angela Shelf, & Anna Rich (Illustrator). Dare to Dream: Coretta Scott King and the Civil Rights Movement  Puffin Reprint edition (January 1999).
As usual, too many words for preschool children. Use the pictures and retell more simply.

Paulsen, G., & Theis, D. (1976). Martin Luther King, The man who climbed the mountain.  Milwaukee, WI: Rain-tree.
More dense than the others; more information on the influence of Gandhi on King. Good photos

Thompson, M. (1983). Martin Luther King, Jr.: A story for children. Family Development  Association, Inc., P.O. Box 485, New York, NY 10009.
Very little text, strong drawings.

Wilson, B. P. lIlus. F. Sowell. (1971). Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Putnam.
Beautifully illustrated with pencil drawings. Simply told … but still too long for 3s and 4s.

Books For Adults

Bennett, L. (1968). What manner of man. New York: Pocket Books.

Garrow, D.J. (1986). Bearing the cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern  Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Morrow. Pulitzer Prize biography.

King, C. S. (1969). My life with Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Lewis, D. L. (1979). King, a biography. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Oates, S.B. (1982). Let the trumpet sound: The life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper & Row.
A gifted historian’s notable book.

Schulke, F., & McPhee, P.O. (1986). King remembered. New York: Norton. Washington, J. M. (Ed.) (1986). Testament of hope: The essential writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper & Row.
Excerpts of the main writings and speeches. Great resource book.

Resources for Adults on Building Self-Esteem in Children

Bank Street College of Education. (1985). Raising a confident child. New York: Pantheon.

Briggs, D. C. (1970). Your child’s self-esteem. New York: Doubleday.
The best book about why 2-year-olds are like that.

Clemens, S. G. (1984). The Sun’s Not Broken, A Cloud’s Just in the Way: On Child-centered Teaching. Mt. Rainier,MD: Gryphon House.

Faber, A., & Mazush, E. (1982). How to talk so kids will talk and listen so kids will talk. New York: Avon.

Ginott, H. G. (1975). Teacher and child. New York: Avon.

Gonzalez-Mena, I., & Eyer, J. (1980). Infancy and caregiving. Palo Alto, CA:Mayfield.
Self-esteem in babies.

Jersild, A. T. (1955). When teachers face themselves. New York: Teachers College Press,
Columbia University.
To support children we must develop ourselves.

McGinnis, J. B., & McGinnis, K. (1981). Parenting for peace and justice.
Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

<span “>Pogrebin, L. C. (1980). Growing up free: Raising your child in the 80’s. New York:  Bantam.

Records, Cassettes, and Books About the Civil Rights Movement

Highlander Research and Education Center, Route 3, Box 370, New Market, TN 37820.
Write for a catalog. Includes Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Songs of the freedom movement and We Shall Overcome: Songs of the Freedom Movement

Martin Luther King Center for Non-Violent Social Change, 449 Auburn St., N. E., Atlanta, GA 30312. Write for a listing of their books, cassettes, and records.

And of Course You Will Want Dr. King’s Own Books

<span “>Stride toward freedom: The Montgomery story. (1958)  New York: Harper.
Strength to love. (1963). New York: Harper & Row.
Why we can’t wait. (1964). New York: Harper & Row.
Trumpet of conscience. (1968). New York: Harper & Row
Washington, I. M. (Ed.). (1986) Testament of hope: The essential writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper & Row

© 1988 NAEYC.  Copyright transferred 1999 to Sydney Clemens. Permission to reprint is required only if this material is to be reprinted in another form such as a book, newsletter, or journal.

<span “>Request permission from Sydney Gurewitz Clemens in writing, at sydney@eceteacher.org  or at 73 Arbor Street, San Francisco, CA 94131.  I’m very interested in how this is used, and appreciate being told, even when not required because of copyright. SGC

What do 4-year-olds and other young children need to learn to help them experience Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of living with other people in peace and mutual respect?  Learning to recognize Dr. King’s photograph and to recite a few key facts about him is fine, but what did this man stand for; what is it he would really  want children to know about him’?

Dr. King is one of the great heroes of our time and his work can be authentically interpreted to young children to fire their imaginations.

Three such interpretations are developed here:

1.  Children find their voices and powers in the peaceable resolution of everyday conflicts.

2. Each child learns to take center stage and gain self-esteem as Child of the Day.

3. By acting out the Montgomery bus boycott, children learn how people change their world.

Invoke Dr. King when children tangle 

We want to invoke Dr. King and his thinking whenever children tangle with each other because Dr. King’s main message to the people of this planet was that we need to live respectfully and peaceably together.

In September and October, we talk with the children frequently about who Dr. King was and his belief that all people should get along with each other fairly.

What do children mean when they say, “I won’t be your friend”? 

Ruben, sounding tough and mean, tells Luisa, “I’m not gonna be your friend.” He uses this phrase experimentally, not so much to hurt as to get rid of her or to make her yield a toy. It is a very effective tactic. Luisa bursts into tears. The teacher says, “Ruben, please look at Luisa’s face. Did you want to make her cry?” Ruben thinks about this and then looks concerned. Once made to see, children are too honest to deny the pain they have caused and they feel regret. Taking our cue from Dr. King, we make sure that the aggressor looks at the pain of the victim. If soldiers couldn’t drop bombs from airplanes but had to look their victims in the eye, they might reconsider their orders to kill.

Later in the year, we can call on Dr. King when the exclusive language crops up. When Cynthia says, “Mary says she won’t be my friend,” we can ask, “What would Dr. King say about that?” Thus bolstered by Dr. King, Cynthia can go back to Mary and say to her, “Dr. King wanted all the children to be friends.”

Our teaching is validated when, in January, we see one child rush to comfort another who falls down, or overhear one child try to exclude another and the second child invoke Dr. King.

Good teachers, who are careful not to tell children how they feel, may suspect a contradiction. Having children tell each other “Dr. King wanted all the children to be friends,” seems to imply that Dr. King was telling them how to feel,  not how to behave.

What children really mean when they say “I’m not gonna be your friend” is “Go away” or “Not now” or, at worst, “I have real power over you!” We talk about friends, too, with Dr. King as an authority. Eventually we will teach children more specific yet polite ways to get rid of somebody: “I’ll play with you in a little while, but I’m busy right now” or “There are only enough blocks for two of us. Please wait for your turn.” Meanwhile, saying “Dr. King wanted all the children to be friends” is a specific antidote to the exclusive phrase “I don’t want to be your friend” and is the shorthand for “Dr. King wanted you to treat every individual fairly, with respect, and never to tell them they are less than valuable—whether you like them or not.”

Handle conflict peacefully 

A Head Start teacher raised a problem. When Francis wanted to slide down the slide and Kevin wanted to go up, they kept crashing into each other. There was a ladder on the slide but Kevin wanted to go up the down side—he loved to scramble up the slippery slope. Although the slide was wide enough to take two children at once, he wasn’t willing to leave one side for Francis. Kevin showed how big and powerful and glib he was by picking on Francis, who was less adept at physical and verbal activities.

Over the long haul we want to bring out Kevin’s considerateness and Francis’s assertiveness. The program must fill Kevin’s need to be important, to be acknowledged, and to be a leader; and must give Francis his share of attention and being first. We follow Dr. King’s teaching when we help children to be useful to their playmates and to become confident, by intervening in actual incidents involving friction between children.

Right now, we have two boys about to collide on a slide. How can we help them solve their conflict in a nonviolent way?

In a workshop someone suggested that Kevin might not understand the rules, that he might come from a home where rules weren’t consistently enforced and thus have no clear sense of the permanence of a rule. In September this is a legitimate concern, and we must be patient and consistent until the child learns how our program differs from home. But 4s take rules as given, not as negotiable or changeable. The rule comes like a tomato. It won’t turn into a carrot. Kids know there are things you can do at home that you can’t do at Grandma’s house, and there are things you can do at Head Start that you can’t do either at home or at Grandma’s. By May, Kevin knows how the slide is supposed to be used. He’s making a power statement, and he’s working on his own tough image while the teacher is concerned about poor little Francis sitting passively at the top of the slide.

One of Dr. King’s principles was that being a bully isn’t good for one’s self-esteem. Dr. King was willing to face the mainstream of a violent country without returning its violence because he believed that bullies don’t like to see themselves as bullies. Often his strategy worked. Sometimes it was enormously costly.

The teacher of Kevin and Francis valued kindness and children’s exploration of their environment. She believed in using just enough external control to keep the children physically and emotionally safe. Had she cared more for control and order than for developing children, she would have simply removed Kevin from the slide without explanation or interest in his motives.

Be sure that the aggressor looks at the pain of the victim. 

Well-meaning but unskilled adults walk into that situation and say, ‘Kevin, you don’t want to go up the down side.” On reflection, we know that he does want to, that’s why he does it. Realizing this, we might say “Kevin, I see that you would like to go up the down side of the slide but right now Francis would like to slide down. Wait till he’s done and then you can have your turn.” That would be fine if Kevin were not already at the top of the slide by the time this long speech is finished. Fours are very fast, and Kevin wants to be fastest of all. We could catch hold of his foot, saying: “I don’t want you to go up right now.” By speaking this way we acknowledge the power we’re using. To change children’s behavior, get their attention and simply state: “I don’t want you to do that.” Get a hand on the child—not a mean hand, simply a firm grip—to make him stay put while you discuss the problem.

This teacher had several goals: 

“I wanted to let Francis slide down safely. He can’t climb up yet. but it was a lot of work for him to learn to go down, so I’m trying to allow him to do that. On the other hand, I wanted to let Kevin climb up the slide. It’s exercise, it’s an accomplishment, and he’s good at it. I just don’t want to let them hump into each other?”

Our workshop decided most of this teacher’s goals would be met if she said: “Kevin, hold it. Just wait. Francis, you can come on down now.” And after Francis reached the ground, “Okay, Kevin, up you go. In this way, everybody would get a turn.

However, Francis hasn’t said what he feels. We’ve been reading his mind, we’ve been reading Kevin’s mind, and we are controlling the situation. if we follow Dr. King’s teaching our task becomes helping these children practice skills that lead to cooperation, self-esteem, and speaking up for themselves.

First, stop Kevin. Then ask Francis, “What do you want to do?” If Francis doesn’t speak up: “You look like you want to slide down. Do you want to slide down?” If he nods, say to him, “Tell Kevin ‘I want to slide down.'” Get him to the point where he has said what he wants in his own voice. After Francis has spoken, ask Kevin, “Anything wrong with Francis sliding down’?” and let him graciously give Francis his chance. If Kevin’s having an anxiety fit, point out, “As soon as he’s down, you can go up.” Meanwhile, keep a hand on him. He knows you can forbid him or carry him away from the slide; you have what appears to him to be infinite power. Allowing him to participate in this kind of decision helps him experience his own appropriate strength. Thus Kevin discovers the joy of being helpful, which is such a boost to self-esteem that being faster or able to do more pales by comparison.

This is the kind of empowerment that the Civil Rights Movement achieved. If you feel the need to moralize to Kevin and Francis, you can say, See, this way you have what you want, and both of you feel good!”

Develop each person’s self-esteem: A lesson from Martin Luther King, Jr. 

A child can’t learn what Dr. King had to teach unless the child also learns pride and self-love. Becoming fair-minded takes a strength that is only available to people who know their own worth. Building children’s self-esteem is done or not done or undone all the time and in every interaction. Implementing a Child of the Day program gives a particular focus to the goal of letting each child experience individual recognition and leadership. In a group of 20, each child can have this special day once a month.

Some teachers have a fancy apron or cape or tool belt for the Child of the Day to wear and have several important tasks for that child to accomplish. In Sandy Farmer’s class, the Child of the Day announces cleanup by sounding a triangle and softly telling one child after another, “It’s time to clean up.” The child also puts toothpaste on individual pieces of waxed paper to be carried to the washroom. The Child of the Day selects the first song, is first to go outdoors, goes to the kitchen for bowls of second helpings, and gets first choice of activities.

Another activity for the Child of the Day can be what teacher Kate Rosen calls giving the message. When the children need to be reminded of their responsibility in a big school, as upon returning to the classroom from outdoors, the Child of the Day goes to the front of the group and says: “Please go indoors quietly, hang up your coats, and sit on the rug.” This idea of giving the message in any situation that recurs regularly spares children the tedium of hearing your voice endlessly repeat directions.

Another distinction for the Child of the Day is to receive a bouquet of friends. At circle time, ask if anyone wants to say something nice about the Child of the Day. Write each contribution on a flower cut from paper as children dictate. Of course, no child should be compelled to contribute a bouquet statement and all bouquet statements must be positive. You will find yourself writing sentiments like these: Fay says “I like Rosemary’s hugs.” Fern says “I like to play house with Rosemary.” Yoko says “I like to hammer with Rosemary.” Stan says  Rosemary has pretty eyes.” Neil says “I like to ride bikes with Rosemary.” Rosemary can then paste the flowers on a sheet of paper and put them in a book of nice things she has made or received.

Show children how Martin Luther King worked 

Teaching facts is a less effective educational method than is enabling children to experience, discover, think, and conclude, as early childhood educators well know. We need to consider this when helping young children understand why Dr. King is important. To make his work vivid to them, take them back to “Jim Crow” Montgomery.

The joy of being helpful is such a boost to self-esteem that being faster or able to do more pales by comparison.

Play Montgomery bus boycott 

When you cast the play, be sure to avoid typecasting. Ask children whether they want to be Black or White, giving each a black or white piece of paper to help everyone remember. Feel free to cast girls as Dr. King and boys as Mrs. Parks. Because the play will be repeated many times, everyone who wants to play a particular character will eventually get to play it.

You will need one chair for each child in the group except the extra White passenger, two dolls (one black and one white), two dimes, a place designated for a pay telephone and one for a jail, maybe a steering wheel for the bus, and one of the books from the Bibliography picturing Rosa Parks.

Tell the story of Rosa Parks. 

Gather the children around you. Show the picture of Rosa Parks.  Begin:

I want to tell you a true story about this woman. Her name is Mrs. Rosa Parks, and this story happened a long time ago, before you were born, before your mommy and daddy were born. Mrs. Parks lived in a place called Montgomery where there was a very bad rule. The rule said that people with dark skins, like this doll, had to do different things than people with light skins, like this doll. There were rules about where you could sit on the bus and where you couldn’t sit, where you could eat and where you couldn’t eat, where you could shop and where you couldn’t shop. There were rules about where you could go to the toilet and where you couldn’t go to the toilet, where you could get a drink of water and where you couldn’t get a drink of water, where you could go to school and where you couldn’t go to school, where you could get an ice cream cone and where you couldn’t. And all the rules said people with dark skin—Black people—got the worst places and people with light skin—White people had to be in the best places.

Mrs. Parks was a Black woman who worked sewing—that’s called a seamstress. She worked very hard and got very tired. One day she was riding the bus home from work and she was sitting in the first row of the section at the back of the bus where Black people had to sit. Now we need to make a bus so we can play this story, and then I’ll tell you the rest of it.

Organize the play.  Choose a driver; a Mrs. Parks, a Dr. King, and a police officer. Choose one “extra” White passenger to displace Mrs. Parks. Fill all the seats in the back with Black passengers and all the seats in the front with White passengers. Put the White driver in the driver’s seat. Leave no empty seats. Mrs. Parks sits in the first row of the Black section. Dr. King and the police officer need to wait offstage to get telephone calls.

The play begins.  Continue to tell the story. Coach each actor in what to say next, expecting children to use their own words. The “extra” White passenger enters the full bus. Now there are too many people riding the bus and so there aren’t enough seats. Make sure the children understand this.
“The bus driver tells Mrs. Parks that she has to give up her seat and go to the back and stand.”

Tell the driver to say that now. Repeat what the driver is to say. Encourage the child to repeat, using her own words, and to pretend to be bossy.
“Mrs. Parks is tired and says, ‘I’m too tired.'” Again, encourage the child to repeat your words and to look tired.

Use this approach throughout the play, until children begin to anticipate your words. This should start happening by the fourth or fifth repetition. The children may interrupt and ask, “Why does she have to stand?”

I, as the teacher, answer,
“Because of that awful rule about Black people being in one place and White people being in another, and the Whites getting the best place and the Blacks getting the worst.” Continue telling the story.

The bus driver tells Mrs. Parks, “Go to the back of the bus. It’s the law.” Mrs. Parks replies, “It’s a bad law.” So the bus driver takes a dime out of a pocket (that’s what it cost back then to use a pay telephone) and goes to the telephone and calls the police, saying, “Rosa Parks won’t go to the back of the bus. Please come and arrest her.”

The police come to take Mrs. Parks away to jail. They say, “You’re breaking the law.” She answers, “But I was here first. I’m tired and I need to stay sitting.” The officer tells her, “You can be tired in jail,” and takes her there.

When Mrs. Parks got to jail she was allowed to make a phone call. The city she lived in was called Montgomery, and the Black people there had an organization to help each other called the Montgomery Improvement Association. Mrs. Parks called her friends at the Montgomery Improvement Association, and told them what had happened. “I didn’t go to the back of the bus because I was tired. They sent for the police and brought me to jail.” The people at the Montgomery Improvement Association got Mrs. Parks out of jail and called everybody to come to a meeting. The leader at the meeting was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Now change by 90 degrees the direction of the chairs that make up the bus. “We are now at a community meeting.” Begin the meeting, as happened in the Civil Rights Movement, with a song. You might try,

 If you miss me at the back of the bus
You can’t find me back there
Come on over to the front of the bus
I’ll be riding up there.

Help the children pretend to be Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and all the other people at the meeting trying to figure out what to do. Elicit nonviolent suggestions from the children.

Ask the children to discuss what is happening with Mrs. Parks. Is it fair? Consider both violent and peaceable alternatives, and how things might turn out with each. Ask the children, “What should we do?”

Tell them that at the meeting the people talked about what to do. Dr. King said, “We need to help Mrs. Parks, and we need to make the buses fair.”

Now the children should talk about ways to get the buses to be fair. Dr. King should help the group decide not to use ways that will just get them hurt, like throwing stones or shooting people. He should help them decide to boycott the buses until people can sit where they like and some Black bus drivers are hired.

The Black people in Montgomery thought Dr. King was right when he said, “It’s not fair that Mrs. Parks got pushed to the back of the bus. We have to make the buses fair.” They decided to boycott the buses. That means they decided, “We won’t ride the buses until we can sit where we like.” (Let each child repeat this sentence and then all say it in unison.)

They had meetings and they told the mayor and the bus company that they just wouldn’t ride until two things happened: The people would be able to sit where they liked, and some of the bus drivers would have to be Black. The bus company lost a lot of money because 50,000 Black people walked and car-pooled for one whole year! Fifty thousand people is more than I have ever seen in one place, more than a football crowd, more than a circus, even more than a parade! They walked to work for a year. That’s as long as from your birthday to your next birthday.

After a long time they won. Nowadays, when you go to Montgomery, you will see Black and White people sitting together in the buses, eating together in the restaurants, drinking from the same water fountain, going to school together, buying ice cream at the same place, and using the same bathrooms. Many people, White and Black, did lots of work to make that happen. If we think that something isn’t fair and we work together to change it, we can change it and change the world.

You can do this play often, letting the children choose whether or not they want to join in and, over time, giving everyone who participates a chance to be Dr. King and Mrs. Parks regardless of gender or color. Children love repetition because knowing what comes next makes them feel competent. Each time children repeat the play, they will  understand it better. You can add more information from time to time.

When Dr. King began his work he helped a seamstress get a seat on a bus. lust before he died he was helping the garbage collectors in Memphis get better pay for their work. He was interested in ordinary people with ordinary jobs. He wasn’t interested in fancy stuff, just fairness.

Dr. King’s work eventually caused the president of the United States to sign a law that changed this awful rule about separating Black and White people. Now we can all sit where we like on the bus.

Dr. King didn’t do all this by himself. He was a leader. People listened to his speeches and were interested in what he had to say. Millions of American people worked together to win fair rules. Dr. King needed everybody’s help to get the job done. Lots of people of all colors helped. Boys and girls, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, cousins, and friends all walked instead of riding buses with bad rules. Sometimes they even had to go to jail like Mrs. Parks. Dr. King went to jail many times to show how wrong the bad rules were.

Discuss the death of Martin Luther King 

After we have lived with Dr. King for many months of the school year, repeatedly invoking him when episodes of injustice are occurring in our classroom, quoting him in response to “I don’t want to be your friend,” playing Montgomery bus boycott, and singing songs, we talk about Martin Luther King’s death. We talk about how awful it was. Dr. King said very brave and beautiful things about living and dying. We read this to the children:


Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

                      — From a speech made April 3, 1968, the night before he was murdered

The children have seen him alive on TV, so how can he be dead? We demystify the concept of videotape, an explanation children need so they can unravel truth from fiction and live from reruns. If you videotape the children early in the year and replay it later, children can conceptualize their own history through seeing the olden days of last month. Now you can explain that, although we can see videotapes of what he did and said when he was alive, Dr. King is really dead. Superman isn’t real and he’s on TV, and Reverend King was real but he’s dead. TV is very confusing. If we use this discussion to help children explore the ways in which death affects people and how we deal with it, emphasizing the fact that our memories of what the person was like live on as ideas inside our heads and ideas we can talk about, we will have helped to prepare children for when they experience death closer at hand.

Color, race, and racism 
It’s all very well to act in a play and to get compliments as the Child of the Day, but if you feel you are an inferior color, or a superior one for that matter, your self-esteem will be seriously impaired. Color matters in our culture, and children are going to have a lot to say once you open up the discussion.

You may want to make the children’s silhouettes. Let children choose from black, white, yellow, and red paper. You can use silhouettes to discuss the strange idea that although we call people Black or White, they are neither. As you make and discuss the silhouettes, see if their stark, uniform colors inspire questions from the children about skin color. Discussions that grow out of questions will be particularly fruitful. Silhouettes make attractive room decorations and serve as good gifts to families.

We need to let children talk about race without condemning what is on their minds. Some children will make racist comments because they have heard them at home. If we can talk about color as interesting, even though some people have terrible problems with it then children will have plenty to say. Our own racism and our insecurity about it may make it hard for us to listen to this type of discussion.

If you were raised prejudiced, as most people were, it is especially valuable to tell children,

“When I was a little girl people told me that (Blacks, Indians, rich people, Latins, Hispanics, poor people, Asians, Irish people, deaf people, Russians, Italians, people in wheelchairs, Jews, Whites) weren’t as good as we were, but I’ve decided that I want to be friends with everybody I choose. I’ve changed a lot. You too can decide how you want to feel about people who seem different from you.”

Teaching multiracial material is risking treading on people’s prejudices, but… 

If, like Dr. King, children are to make a difference in the world, they must be able to decide for themselves. You can discuss all sorts of differences with children. Is it okay to like a girl if you’re a boy? Somebody with long hair if you have short hair? Somebody brown if you are pink? Somebody old if you’re young? Somebody tall if you’re short? Can you like babies if you’re big? None of us has the last word on these matters. All of us can think of people who are hard to like and people who we wish would like us more.

One of our responsibilities is to teach children that they can think anything or feel anything without being bad people it’s what they do that counts. I can feel like obliterating my boss. As long as I don’t do it, I am not guilty of murder. We don’t have to like somebody to treat them fairly. Dr. King taught us to treat everybody fairly no matter what we think or feel about them. Many children grow up without learning the difference between having the feeling and acting upon it.

Some children will make racist comments because they’ve heard them at home.

But what about parents’ opinions?

In discussing racism in school we don’t intend to put children in conflict with their parents. For the child who is being taught racial superiority, it’s important to acknowledge that people think differently. We have a right and a responsibility to explain,


It’s true that some people feel their skin color makes them better than other people, but some people feel other ways. You can decide what you feel. If you like
people of all colors, you know you do, and nothing anybody says will make you forget.

Work with others 

To teach this program in isolation entails a high risk of treading on somebody’s prejudices. Some people—parents or other staff members—may think the children are too young to deal with things that trouble adults about the real world, whereas others may think your program is too radical. If you expect difficulty from parents, assemble your support system.

Get support from your director by assuming that of course she supports you, because most publicly funded programs have a mandate to teach multiculture. It is helpful if your director puts on record that it is the policy of your program to teach multicultural education, and parents are not free to reject this element of the program.

People tend to be less defensive if they know what to expect, so discuss your plans with parents in advance of your lessons. At a parents’ meeting present some of the points you will be teaching the children. Explain to parents that there are only two options for our children: to learn to live with all the various people in the world or to be afraid of others and to fight them.

Ask parents about their cultures and the events, heroes, songs, and stories they would like you to include in future celebrations. Any of  these might lead you to activities like those suggested here, based on Dr. King. Dr. Masako Tanaka asks parents to close their eyes to remember their childhoods and seek experiences that made them feel warmly connected to their elders. She uses these recollections as a basis for planning cultural studies for the children.

Consider using a fairly simple globe of the world. Send home to each family a request to know the countries all their people came from. There is a good opportunity to explore the cultures of Native American people while you wait for the specific family background data on Europeans or Asians or Africans. You can then tape signs on the globe: Mary’s great-grandmother on Ireland, Sammy’s grandfather on Russia, and so on. Work with the facts that people who came from one part of the world tend to have yellow-pink skin and brown or yellow hair; people from another part of the world tend to have black or brown skin and very curly hair; people from yet another part of the world tend to have yellow-brown skin and straight black hair.

This activity should give children a sense of why people are different colors and why their family members look the way they do. It should also teach them that one of the most interesting things about this country is that people come from all over the world to live here.


The children you teach will support each other better as a result of the curriculum about Dr. King. Probably children will hurt each other’s feelings less often. When a child gets hurt or a child’s feelings get hurt or a child is unhappy and your loving impulse urges you to run to comfort her or him, you have alternatives. You can encourage another child to help instead. Many of us learned to support our peers in our 20s and 30s and 40s. The children we teach will be much better off when we transfer to them what we’ve learned about networking and helping.

If you include them in the planning, most children’s families will support your work in multiculture. They will want their children to learn these lessons—understanding that without multicultural education we are prey to suspicion and mistrust. As we learn to enjoy each other and our diverse cultures, we approach the ancient universal dream of living together in peace and love on our small planet—a dream so well retold by Dr. King.

note: This is the end of the body of the article.  There were sidebars, bibliographies, and a portrait of the author…you will find them below.

First sidebar:

Let the children hear Dr. King’s eloquent voice

You might play a recording of this part of his famous 1963 speech:


“So I say to you my friends, that even though we have faced the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day in the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream 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. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words interposition and nullification, that one day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

After the children have heard him, I say to them, “Dr. King wanted all the children to be friends.”

Another sidebar

As another musical support to your curriculum about Dr. King, you can teach the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome,” which has been sung in meetings and church halls and schools in thousands of places around the world by millions of people.

Stand and cross your arms over your chest reaching out to join hands with the others in the circle.

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day
Oh deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day

We’ll walk hand in hand
We’ll walk hand in hand
We’ll walk hand in hand some day
Oh deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day

We are not afraid
We are not afraid
We are not afraid today
Oh deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day
Oh deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day

There are more verses. Black and White together … We are not alone….
You and the children can make more verses still.

It is very important that children understand the essence of the words we’re teaching them in our plays, in our songs, and in other ways. They must understand, for instance, that the song “We Shall Overcome” is not about poor Black people. The Civil Rights Movement was never just about Black people living in poverty.

It was about

  •     the damage of an unequal relationship to both oppressor and oppressed;
  •     the interconnectedness of all people;
  •     courage to do what’s right; and
  •     how to be a good and caring person.

© 1988 NAEYC.  Copyright transferred 1999 to Sydney Clemens. Permission to reprint is required only if this material is to be reprinted in another form such as a book, newsletter, or journal. Request permission from Sydney Gurewitz Clemens in writing. I’m very interested in how this is used, and appreciate being told, even when not required because of copyright. SGC