As a kindergarten teacher for 12 years, I secretly looked forward to MLK Jr. Day for two reasons: 1) We got the day off school, which was much needed after trying to transition back into the classroom following Christmas break and 2) I loved playing Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech for my students. Each and every time I played that clip, the students sat so quietly you could have heard a pin drop (which is extremely rare in classroom full of five- and six-year-olds!).

If it’s been awhile since you’ve heard Dr. King’s hypnotizing voice, I highly recommend you take a moment to listen to it:

Being out of the classroom for several years now, I do not recall what we were required to teach the children about Dr. King and his mission, but I do recall feeling uneasy about the lessons I gave. Not because I didn’t want to teach them about this great man who has been memorialized by a national holiday, but because I didn’t want to explain the history of African-American oppression. And I did not want to explain his assassination.

But I did.

I told children that there used to be bathrooms for whites and bathrooms for blacks, water fountains for whites and water fountains for blacks. I told them that black children and white children were not allowed to attend the same school and that black children, and adults, were required to ride in the back of the bus.

The looks on their faces were priceless, in a horrific sort of way. First of all, they couldn’t imagine how or why children of different races were forced to be separated, especially when they were sitting next to their best friends who, often times, looked nothing like them. But they also couldn’t understand why sitting at the back of the bus was once considered a punishment of sorts. Most of them liked riding in the back of the bus.

I told them that Dr. King worked to change all of that, to bring people together regardless of their skin color. I also told them that he was shot and killed for doing so because some people wanted to keep black and white people separate.

Again, you could have heard a pin drop.

At the time, it didn’t seem fair to speak of Dr. King’s work without explaining he lost his life trying to secure peace for others. 

Fast-forward several years; my son is now in kindergarten and yesterday he received this assignment:

On the first page, it explains, “FYI: We do not discuss him being shot or killed but that he died.” And, for a moment, I felt a huge sense of relief. Even though I’d felt it necessary to teach other people’s children about Dr. King’s tragic death for over tens years, I felt ill-prepared to have the same conversation with my own son.

On page two, the assignment shares an excerpt from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

All of a sudden, the slight sense of relief I had just experienced seconds prior was rapidly replaced with sadness and anxiety. How was I going to explain “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners” to my five-year-old?!

And then it hit me.

Dr. King believed in God. When I was teaching, I did not.

I didn’t grow up in a house of faith. My mother had been raised Catholic, but was excommunicated from the church after divorcing my father. As a result, she was very vocal about her hatred towards the church, but very quiet about her love for God. Her actions, obviously, negatively influenced my relationship with God, meaning I didn’t have one.

And yet, as a child, I always craved one.

I desperately wanted to go to church and sing songs about Jesus loving me, “because the bible tells me so.” But I didn’t have a bible, and we didn’t go to church.

If I had, I would have learned that slavery and oppression is not something that started in the 1800’s because of the color of someone’s skin, but something that has been around since the beginning of time because of people’s belief, or lack thereof, in God.

Thankfully, my husband and I began attending church in 2009 and I was baptized as an adult in 2011. As a result, I read the bible regularly. Not just to myself, but to my children. We’ve actually read through several children’s bibles and each one of them describes the many ways God’s people have been persecuted over the years.

These are a few of our favorites:

Because my children are well aware of God’s story and the persecution of His people, I find it much easier to put Dr. King’s life, and therefore death, into perspective.

Here’s what I plan to say:

Remember how the bible says the Egyptians - people who didn’t believe in God - didn’t like the Israelites - people who did believe in God - so they turned them into slaves? Well, the Egyptians were oppressors. That means they looked down upon the Israelites, so much so that they captured them and forced them to work for them. That’s how the pyramids were built. When someone is captured and made to do work for someone else, they’re called a slave, and the person who captured them is called the slave owner.

Over thousands of years, different groups of people have been oppressing other groups of people for a variety of reasons. The Egyptians oppressed the Israelites because they didn’t believe in God, but more recently some people oppressed other people just because of the color of their skin. In fact, just before Dr. King was alive, a group of white people captured a group of black people and turned them into slaves, forcing them to do work for them just like the Egyptians did with the Israelites. The black people weren’t forced to build pyramids like the Israelites however; they were forced to do other kinds of work for the white slave owners, like farming. There were some white people who didn’t like that other white people had turned black people into slaves, but this kind of slavery went on for years and years and years anyway.

But, when Abraham Lincoln was president in the late 1800’s (about 130 years ago), he wanted to end slavery so he wrote a document called “The Emancipation Proclamation,” which said white people weren’t allowed to own black people as slaves any more. This made some of the white slave owners really angry because they liked owning their black slaves. One white man was so angry about Lincoln’s new law that he shot and killed him. The black people didn’t like being slaves to white people so they were grateful that President Lincoln gave them their freedom.

Unfortunately, at the time, white people were the only people who were allowed to own land and stores, so those white storeowners made up a lot of their own rules to keep black people oppressed. For example, the white storeowners made laws that said black people couldn’t use the same bathrooms or water fountains that white people used. And to make matters worse, they made the white people’s bathrooms really fancy as a way of telling black people, “We think we’re better than you.” This went on for years and years, and as a black man growing up in that kind of world, filled with hate and separation, Dr. King wanted white people and black people to get along.

More importantly, Dr. King was a man of God and he wanted God’s people to come together peacefully just as Jesus commanded, regardless of whether they believed in God or not. Sadly, one white man was so angry that Dr. King was preaching God’s message of peace and love, that he shot and killed Dr. King. Today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we honor Dr. King’s life, not only because he was working to help blacks and whites live together peacefully, but because he was spreading God’s message of peace to all people, even those who didn’t believe in God. Dr. King was a peacemaker, and the bible says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Let’s honor God, and Dr. King, by being peacemakers too.

For a printable version to read with your children, please click here (or the image below).

How do you explain Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death? Please share any tips or suggestions in the comments below. Thanks!

Beth Nowak is a former Kindergarten teacher and mother of two who wanted to make memories with her children while making a difference in her community. Helping other parents do the same, she left the classroom to create Giving Families' Good Mail Challenges... fun and easy, family-friendly giveback activities that can be completed anytime, anywhere using materials readily available in most homes. To learn more and join the family, visit GivingFamilies.com.