Courageous Voices that Shook the Nation to Action

3, 4, 5
Through literature and music, students explore the choice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birth date as a United States holiday. Students listen to a story about the celebration of his birthday and hear about the quest of those who fought to have it recognized as a national holiday.
PrintOne 60-minute class period

The learner will:

  • listen to a book and song about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.and his role in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • explain how Dr. King worked philanthropically for the common good of all citizens.
  • write a reflection about the attributes of a hero.
  • one copy of the book, Happy Birthday Martin Luther King by Jean Marzollo
  • Handout: What Makes a Hero? 
  • Audio copy of Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" a 1980 song about Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 
  • Printed background about the holiday from the Internet
  • Printout of lyrics of the song for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Happy Birthday."
Teacher Preparation 

Before this lesson, preview the history of the decision to make Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday a national holiday so you can summarize it for the students.

Home Connection 

Students start a journal entitled, "The Hero in Me." At least once a week, students write an entry describing philanthropic acts they have performed. Example: This week, I gave my time by... This journal assignment may be extended to the end of the school year.

  • Marzolla, Jean.  Happy Birthday Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. Scholastic 1995. ISBN 9780590728287.


  1. Anticipatory Set: Say to the learners, "Today I am going to read a story about a gentleman named Dr. King, and then we will explore how his birthday became a national holiday." Read the book Happy Birthday Martin Luther King by Jean Marzollo and ask the students to recall the events of his life and to summarize the work of Dr. King.

  2. Review the meaning of the word philanthropy ("giving time, talent, or treasure for the sake of another or for the common good").

  3. Ask students to identify examples of Dr. King giving his time, talent, and treasure for the common good.

  4. Have learners explain why we honor Dr. King. (He fought for equal rights, stood against injustice, and envisioned a society where all humankind would be treated equally no matter what their race, religion, or ethnicity. He used nonviolent tactics, was a peacemaker, and lost his life during his fight for the cause.)

  5. Ask students the question, "How do you think our country decides what should became a national holiday?" 

  6. Ask the students to identify some national holidays and brainstorm reasons these days are holidays. As you listen to the discussion, write some key words on the board that describe the characteristics. Some words that come up may be president, leader, change, inspirational, hard-working, sacrifice, first, fight for what is right, exploration, and honor. Ask the students if these holidays honor people who worked for the common good.

  7. Ask them to look at the list of words and note which ones fit the work of Dr. King. Tell students why some people supported the the idea of making his birthday a holiday (promotes peace rather than aggression, honors the work of a man who protested racial discrimination, etc.) and why others opposed the idea (he didn't hold public office, too expensive to add another national holiday and possible day off from work and school, etc.).

  8. Tell the students that the words to a song in 1980 influenced the decision to make Dr. King's birthday a national holiday. Play the Stevie Wonder song while students follow the lyrics. Talk about why music is an influential form of communication. Stevie Wonder expressed his feelings about Dr. King through his song "Happy Birthday."

  9. Discuss the meaning of the lyrics. Ask the students to pick out meaningful lines of the song and explain them to the rest of the class. Discuss how these lyrics might have influenced the decision to make Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday a national holiday.

  10. Ask the students how this song and holiday inspire us to work for justice and promote kindness to all.

  11. Ask students to brainstorm ideas of actions they can perform to promote justice and kindness.


Students write a paragraph, reflecting on the term hero. (See Handout.)

Cross Curriculum 

Students make a plan to promote kind and fair treatment of others in the classroom and school community. Students teach K-2 students what they have learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. and teach them the Happy Birthday song. Students volunteer as storytellers and present the Martin Luther King, Jr. text to the K-2 students.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.I Definitions of Philanthropy
    1. Standard DP 01. Define Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark E.1 Define philanthropy as the giving and sharing of time, talent, or treasure intended for the common good.