Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Washington, DC

If your kids are like mine, they likely came home this week telling you that in the days leading up to MLK Jr. Day on January 16 they’ll be learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a parent, I’m thrilled that my first-grade daughter will be learning about Dr. King in school. As a teacher, I’m looking for more opportunities to help her make a connection with Dr. King and the historical events he was pivotal in achieving.

As an English teacher (one semester away from finishing my Masters in Education), I have this theory that all English teachers have one particular area of literature they love more than others. For me, that is African American literature. In honor of Black History Month coming up in February, I’m going to be posting an experiential learning guide I have created that honors the voices of some of my favorite African American writers and then offers suggestions of places to visit in the DC/Northern Virginia region that directly tie to those authors. This project was initially done for a course in my Masters program but the work was so interesting and fulfilling to me that I’m going to build upon it and publish it here to share it with as many people as possible.

That being said, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of my favorite writers featured in this publication, and as the only one who has his own national holiday, he earns a bump-out feature of his own. I’d like to share with you some ways to get your kids involved in actively learning about and celebrating the life of this great man on January 16. We are particularly lucky living in this area to have access to so many places that directly relate to Dr. King and can really bring his voice to life for ourselves and our kids. I plan to do this with my own kids as I attempt to introduce them to one of our greatest American figures.

Featured writings:

Everyone knows King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech- or, at least, they know of the snippet in which he declares he has a dream. Try reading the piece in full with your kids, out loud, and then watch a video of King himself delivering this speech at the March on Washington. When I teach my students rhetorical analysis, I love including audio/visual clips when at all possible. So much is conveyed in tone, facial expression, and mannerisms that doesn’t always carry through in writing (or gets distorted or lost during read-alouds because of the different mannerisms or speech patterns of whoever is reading). There is something very powerful about hearing a writer read their own writing as they intended it to be heard and received. King in particular is a gifted orator whose words on the page are powerful but become epic when heard in his own voice.

Although “I Have a Dream” is perhaps King’s best-known piece of writing, he is the author of others that (if I’m being honest) I actually prefer. One of my favorite pieces of writing of all time is King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which was written when he was jailed in Birmingham following the 1963 Birmingham protests. In Bearing the Cross, a Pulitzer-Prize winning account of King’s Civil Rights career, it’s revealed how personally stressful King found his stints in jail. Being jailed was a not-uncommon occurrence for King in the mid-60s as protests cropped up across the South in which he would either lead or take part. As often as he was jailed, King found each instance emotionally fraught and mentally taxing. During his five-day stint in Birmingham, he released  nervous energy by penning “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” To read his moving words and measured and rational rhetoric, one would never know the great duress he was under at the time. It bears one of the most elegant and haunting closing paragraphs of all time:

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

-Martin Luther King, Jr.; Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963

It is no secret that we are currently living in a world and society which is troubled and bears the silent rumblings of discord and misunderstanding across groups. I read King’s words from time to time to remind myself of his optimism and vision. I ask my students to consider our present day circumstances and to ruminate on whether we have yet reached the “not too distant tomorrow” in which King envisioned love and brotherhood. Their responses are often surprising in their depth and intellect and sensitivity. I love to hear what they think. Ask your kids the same question. (Ask yourself the same question.)

The final piece of King literature I’d like you to read is King’s haunting and eerily prescient “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. One again, King’s delivery of this speech is mandatory viewing, as his emotional state really comes through via spoken word. If you don’t have 43 minutes to spare, please do at least spend two minutes to watch the final words of his speech, when he really ramps up and appears to be on the verge of tears.

It really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I don’t mind. 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. So 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.

He would be shot dead the following day at his Memphis hotel. I promise you, it is impossible to watch him deliver these words and not feel the impact. What thoughts lie behind them? What fears were he nurturing?

Where to visit:

Once you’ve acquainted yourself with the man and his words, you have the option of visiting many places in this area to deepen the connection. Here are my suggestions:

Starting with the most obvious, a stop at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Monument is a must. As it’s part of the National Park Service system, it’s free and open to the public 24 hours a day, year-round. Kids can get a Junior Ranger Booklet to complete for a badge (I’ve written here about the wonderful Junior Ranger program and highly recommend it for kids).

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From there, visit the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech as part of the March on Washington, a coordinated protest aimed at pressuring government to pursue legislation that would ensure equality in the workforce for African Americans, creating more/better job opportunities for them and securing the right to equal pay.

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Of note is exactly why the march culminated with King’s speech being delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The March on Washington took place in 1963- the centennial of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The location was a specific rebuke against the fact that much of what the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence promised had not been delivered to African Americans- or as King put it, “it is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.””

And just where did King write this era-defining speech? Right here in Washington, DC at The Willard Intercontinental, where he was staying as a guest. In the lobby of The Willard, King and his advisers made the final revisions and edits to this speech just before he delivered it at the March. Pop into the hotel and show your kids where history was made.

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The Civil Rights display at Library of Congress

Before entering the room where Thomas Jefferson’s book collection is housed and displayed, the Library of Congress has erected a wonderfully informative walk-through presentation about the Civil Rights movement and its pinnacle in 1964 of achieving the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which guaranteed equal treatment of African Americans under the law and prohibited discrimination, voter suppression, and other forms of injustice faced by African Americans through the period following the Emancipation Proclamation and Jim Crow.

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The display shows the work of many of King’s contemporaries in the movement and the work that led to getting the legislation signed and passed by President Johnson. King’s speech is featured as well as a picture of he and other Civil Right leaders with President Kennedy at the White House following the March on Washington. For anyone who’d like a deeper look into the movement and the Civil Rights Act, this display is a must-see.

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note: the Library of Congress website says this exhibition was only on display until January 2, 2016- however, I was just there in mid December, when I took these pictures, and it was up.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Access to this new museum is still mostly limited to highly coveted timed passes (which will go up soon for April) but there are a limited number of same-day passes available each morning at the museum. If you’re able to grab those, do! If you can’t manage a visit in time for MLK, Jr. day, try your best to get in at a later date and make the visit nonetheless. I was lucky enough to get timed passes last September just weeks after the opening date and it was one of my favorite experiences of the year. I consider this museum to be a work of genius- never has the design of any building so informed the experience within.

Starting in the bottom floor of the museum, one begins in the dark days of slavery. Appropriately, this part of the museum is dark, light-less and feels stifling and hot. Moving up through the second and third floors you pass through the Civil War, Emancipation, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era, and finally you burst into the light-filled center atrium feeling as though you’re gasping for air. The fourth, fifth and sixth floors (the above ground corona) are paeans to achievement in culture. Reaching the top, one feels the heights that have been reached, made all the more poignant when considering the depths in which progress began. The museum’s tagline is “A People’s Journey.” Never has a journey felt so personally rewarding.

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In this far back corner of the top-most floor of the NMAAHC I looked out through the bronze lattice-work that ensconces the building and stood face to face with the Capitol building. How I wished all those who had gone before could stand in that same spot to see the view. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that he had been to the mountaintop. He undoubtedly had. But I wish he had been there for this mountaintop as well.

Other events and activities:

Washington, DC

Dr. King preschool storytime at the MLK branch of the DC Library.
King mural discussion at the MLK branch of the DC Library
Martin Luther King, Jr. parade, Anacostia (January 16, 2017, 11 am)

Northern Virginia

25th Annual Martin Luther King March and Celebration– beginning with prayer at 10:15 at the Leesburg Courthouse, the march honoring King will then proceed to the former Douglass School.
Loudoun Chorale presents “Lift Every Voice” a festival of choirs and inspirational speakers in honor of Dr. King. Leesburg Community Church (January 15, 2017, 4-6 pm)

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Junior Ranger Program at Wolf Trap

Where: 1551 Trap Rd., Vienna, VA
When: Open daily from 7 am-dusk, admission is free

As the parent of an early-elementary kid (she’s a rising first grader), somewhere in between pool trips and ice cream cones and hanging out with friends, it occasionally occurs to me that we should do something to prevent summer slide. During summer, she is required to keep a journal and for every 7 journal entries, she earns a small prize. This is great, but now that she’s nearly 7, I have been casting around for other ways to keep her reading and writing skills up during summer break. I decided we would dip a toe into the waters of the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program, which is a wonderful program designed to help kids enjoy National Parks, dig a bit deeper into the history and background of parks they visit, and make education fun and rewarding. We already have a National Parks passport which we get stamped at each park visit, but the Junior Ranger program is another way to enjoy parks with kids.

For our first Junior Ranger outing we settled on Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna. Locally known and loved as a venue for amazing concerts and Children’s Theatre in the Woods program, Wolf Trap is also a National Park, the only one in the country devoted to the performing arts. Although most people probably associate Wolf Trap with the Filene Center, the park is full of walking trails – the Wolf Trap trail, which is a 2.5 mile hike around the perimeter of the park, and the kid-friendly Wolf Trap TRACK trail, which is a 1.5 mile loop paired with a variety of activity booklets created by the Kids in Parks initiative, which works to get kids and parents outdoors and enjoying state and national parks together. By creating an account for your kids at Kids in Parks, you can track various hikes and activities using an online “journal” and access different activity pamphlets for a variety of parks.

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Once you’ve parked and entered Wolf Trap, a short walk down to the Ranger Stand will get you all squared away. Simply find the park ranger, ask for an activity book, and get started! The Junior Ranger program is designed to appeal to kids roughly between the ages of 5 and 12, and the booklet we got was double-sided, with easier activities for the early-elementary set and harder ones for the late-elementary set. For my kids, the early-elementary side of the booklet was perfect, with short questions that could be answered by reading park information plaques (“Are there still wolves at Wolf Trap?”) and a scavenger hunt which encouraged a long walk through the woods in the hopes that they would find everything on the list (18 out out of 25, not too shabby).

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Once we’d finished our activity booklet we returned to the ranger station where the park ranger checked to make sure everything had been completed, then signed saying the girls were “honorary park rangers.” Each park has its own Junior Ranger badge, but at Wolf Trap, kids who complete the Junior Ranger booklet have the option of choosing between the standard badge and a patch. My oldest daughter, who is also a Girl Scout Daisy, chose the patch to go along with all the other patches she’s earned that are in a Ziploc baggie because I haven’t managed to attach them to her Daisy smock yet, whoops.

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Currently, over 200 National Parks around the country have a Junior Ranger program. For many of the parks, the booklets are available online and can be completed and mailed in for a badge or picked up and turned in at that park’s ranger station. The Kids in Parks program runs in both National Parks and several state parks, but the Junior Ranger program itself is only available in National Parks. Fueled by the satisfaction of success, my kids are now eager and excited to do more Junior Ranger booklets, so we’ll be squeezing in quite a few more during the last month of summer (we are lucky to be within driving distance of many Virginia, Maryland, DC, and even Pennsylvania parks). For kids around age 5, the booklet should be doable with some help from mom or dad, and older kids will be able to complete most or all of the activities on their own. I would say many kids who are rising kindergartners would be capable of doing the activities in the booklet with help, and the challenge is well worth the fun and reward that comes with completing a booklet and earning the badge.

Manassas National Battlefield

Where: 6511 Sudley Rd., Manassas, VA
When: Open daily from dawn to dusk- admission is free

Imagine this. You are 85 years old, and very ill, confined to your bed. You’ve heard talk of some big to-do going on in the area but otherwise, you are largely oblivious to the general climate of the country and the inferno steadily building in the now-early days of the Civil War. One morning, there is quite the ruckus going on out in the yard and you are told there will be a battle and you must be moved. But no. You are old. You want to stay in your own bed. So there you stay, even as Confederate sharpshooters enter your home and tuck themselves into niches and nooks and crannies to use as vantage points for shooting at Federal troops out in the field.

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As you are lying helpless in bed, there is suddenly a monstrous noise and a piece of hot, burning metal rips its way through the wall and tears off one of your feet. Yes, one of your feet. Your home has just been shelled in an attempt to rout out the Confederate sharpshooters within. They’re okay. But you have lost a foot. A few hours later, you die from your injuries.

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Such was the plight of Judith Henry, civilian casualty of the first Battle at Manassas during the Civil War. Foot blown off, and death. War is hell, man.

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RIP Judith. And Judith’s foot.

The Civil War is chock-full of stories like that. For the United States, the Civil War is kind of like that one great-great-uncle who is somewhat embarrassing because he’s full of outdated and offensive beliefs, but has some interesting tall tales that are cool to hear when he’s lucid enough to tell them. It’s one of our nation’s strangest episodes, as fascinating as it is ugly. And we are lucky enough here in Virginia to be close to many integral sites featured in some of the most famous stories from the Civil War- including Manassas National Battlefield, home to not one but two battles during the Civil War.

Probably the most important thing you should know about Manassas Battlefield is that it is here where General Thomas Jonathan Jackson earned his legendary and enduring nickname, “Stonewall.” Most likely, this is the only way you know him- Stonewall Jackson, as if it were his given name. It’s not- he was bestowed this nickname by fellow Confederate Army General Barnard E. Bee, who yelled to his troops, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!”

Unfortunately, Bee died at Manassas as well, shortly after coining one of the most famous nicknames in history. RIP Bee.

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Interestingly enough, there’s a decent amount of controversy surrounding Bee’s nickname for Jackson. Some say it was a compliment to Jackson’s bravery and discipline and command- that he was figuratively a sturdy, unshakable “stone wall.” Others who were on the field that day claimed that Bee actually meant it as an insult. There’s Jackson, just standing there doing nothing, like a stone wall. It’s possible to see it both ways I suppose, if you subtly adjust your inflection when saying it to yourself:

“There stands Jackson… like a stone wall!!”

“There stands Jackson. Like a stone wall.”

However, because Bee shortly after perished of injuries sustained in this battle, no one knows for sure what his true intent was in calling Jackson “Stonewall” and the nickname became one representing admiration, loyalty, and deep respect. You can be anyone you want to be if people who say bad things about you die before you do.

Here’s another interesting thing about Manassas Battlefield- the two battles fought there are referred to by different names. Depending on where you grew up, you may know these battles to be called the Battle(s) of Bull Run. Or you may know them to be called the Battle(s) of Manassas. The Confederate forces referred to the Battles as occurring at Manassas, whereas the Union forces used Bull Run. Technically either name is correct but the Confederate Army won that bout and we are in Virginia after all, so it is most often referred to around here as Battle of Manassas.

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There are walking trails of varying lengths around Manassas Battlefield- the 1 mile Henry Hill loop which is accessible from the Henry Hill Vistor’s Center, and the longer First and Second Battle Loop Trails. Guided tours are available beginning at the Visitor’s Center, as well as a 45-minute movie detailing the battles and various interactive displays that detail the battles. Although now closed for the season, on weekends beginning in April 2016, you can stop by the Stone House, which was used as a field hospital for the two battles, and the Brawner Farm Interpretive Center, which sits at Brawner Farm, site of the Second Battle at Manassas.

Because we went on a winter day when these auxiliary sites were closed, we settled with a tour around Henry Hill and the site of First Battle at Manassas, and a visit to the GIFT SHOP. I’m a sucker for a gift shop. My kids always say, “Can we go in the gift shop?” and I usually say, “Yes, but we aren’t buying anything,” and then at least 50% of the time I end up buying something. Because I’m a sucker.

I did buy something at the Henry Hill Vistor’s Center gift shop, but hear me out. I decided it was high time my family had their own National Park Passport. Have you heard of these? A company called Eastern National makes them and there’s a space to stick a collector’s stamp (also made by Eastern National each year) and a hand-cancellation from every national park in the U.S. Many parks sell them in their gift shops (including Henry Hill) and they’re just $8.95. We purchased ours and plan to take it along on every national park trip we make in the future. This now gives me even more reason to visit Gift Shops (score).

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At Manassas Battlefield, you get FOUR stamps in your passport: one for the main battlefield at Henry Hill, one for the Stone House, one for Brawner Farm, and one for a somewhat new thing called the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, which is a 180-mile loop through four states (Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia) that includes presidential homes, battle sites, and other sites of historical importance. The sites along the Journey Through Hallowed Ground loop get their own JTHG stamp and I gather this is a very big deal because the JTHG site uses language such as “thrilled” and “most exciting” to reveal their inclusion in the Passport program. It just seems like this might be a deeply felt honor. Actually, the Journey Through Hallowed Ground thing looks pretty neat and I requested a map and will likely plan some trips to follow a couple of their suggested itineraries. 

Make a day of it:

Nearby is The Winery at Bull Run (or, I guess you could call it The Winery at Manassas if you want), open at 11 am-7pm Saturday-Wednesday, and until 8 pm on Thursdays and 9 pm on Fridays.

While we were out in this direction we decided to visit the tiny town of Clifton for lunch. Clifton is a one-street, no-stoplight throwback of a town with an adorable Main Street dotted with wine shops, cupcake bakeries, and several restaurants. We ate at Main Street Pub and then took a stroll up and down Main Street, stopping in to let the kids climb on the red caboose before heading out.

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Clifton was so charming that I came home, got a babysitter, and made reservations for my husband and me to return Friday evening for dinner at Trummer’s on Main. I’ll be celebrating January 1st with one of their signature cocktails, The Titanic. Cheers!