Every third Monday in January, around his birthday (January 15), we commemorate the life and work of a vital leader in the Civil Rights Movement and in the church in the U.S., the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It took 15 years for government leaders to establish the Martin Luther King holiday in 1983, another three years before the first Martin Luther King Day took place in 1986, and another 14 years for the holiday to be observed in every U.S. state in 2000. It is a day for which a lot of people had to fight for a long time. It is a day that needs more days in its wake devoted to ending white domination and racial oppression in order for the justice that King advocated to flourish in our lives. It is a day that has a lot to say to our racially unjust social reality and to our justice-striving faith today if we make space for its truths and transformative power.
Below are some resources for learning, praying, and acting in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on this holiday and throughout the year. This list includes articles, podcasts, prayers, and opportunities for getting involved in community service and social justice work. Although some of the resources are aimed at K – 12 educators, they provide information and teaching tips that are useful for church contexts too.
This website has a number of excellent educational resources that encourage in-depth historical engagement with King’s life and the Civil Rights Movement. Here are a few of their offerings (with their “best of” list from 2018 available at this link):
- “Teaching MLK with the Social Justice Standards” by Lauren Mascareñaz (Jan. 10, 2017)
- “From MLK to #BlackLivesMatter: A Throughline for Young Students” by Bret Turner (Jan. 9, 2018)
- “Teaching about King’s Radical Approach to Social Justice” by Coshandra Dillard (Jan. 13, 2020)
- “Teaching the Movement’s Most Iconic Figure – w/ Charles McKinney” hosted by Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Teaching Hard History podcast, season 3, episode 7 (Nov. 10, 2020)
This website at Stanford University has archived numerous documents by and about King, including his sermons, speeches, letters, and prayers. For an audio recording and annotated presentation of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, check out their “Freedom’s Ring” project.
3. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963)
Published at the African Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania. For contextual background to this letter, see the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute’s encyclopedia here.
1. A Prayer by King
“Dearest Jesus, come and sit with us today. Show us the lies that are still embedded in the soul of America’s consciousness. Unmask the untruths we have made our best friends. For they seek our destruction. And we are being destroyed, Lord. Reveal the ways the lies have distorted and destroyed our relationships. They break your shalom . . . daily. Jesus, give us courage to embrace the truth about ourselves and you and our world. Truth: We are all made in your image. Truth: You are God; we are not. You are God; money is not. You are God; jails, bombs and bullets are not.
“And Jesus, give us faith to believe: Redemption of people, relationships, communities and whole nations is possible! Give us faith enough to renounce the lies and tear down the walls that separate us with our hands, with our feet, and with our votes!”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from “Prayers of Martin Luther King Jr: A Brief Collection” at Prayer and Politiks (bold emphases theirs)
2. Collect for the Feast Day of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may strive to secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”
Rite II Collect for the Feast Day of Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 4), from A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Calendar of Commemorations (New York: Church Publishing, 2016), p. 170
3. “Martin Luther King” Prayer by Walter Brueggemann
“We do not doubt that through him and beyond him, you, holy God of the prophets, are still pledged to justice and peace and liberty for all.
“We remember Martin in gratitude . . . and chagrin. And we pledge, amid our stressed ambiguities, to dream as he did, to walk the walk, and to talk the talk of your coming kingdom.
“We pledge, so sure that your truth will not stop its march until your will is done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Excerpt of “Martin Luther King” by Walter Brueggemann, from Prayers for a Privileged People (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008)
4. “Scriptures for Justice, Lament, and Solidarity”
The Episcopal Church’s Racial Justice, Healing and Reconciliation resources at this page include links to scriptures that are particularly fruitful for addressing justice, lament, and solidarity. You can incorporate them into a liturgy or use them for prayer and devotions.
5. Sermons and Reflections for Martin Luther King Day and the Feast Day of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Here are two websites with collections of sermons, reflections, and other resources for faith communities:
- “Martin Luther King, Jr., January 15: Sunday 3 in January,” The Text This Week website
- “Faith that Moves Mountains: Reflections from Memphis on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Explore Faith website (April 2008) – a collection of audio reflections by preachers and teachers
6. The King Center’s Beloved Community Commemorative Service
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change has organized a series of events for Martin Luther King Day 2023. The concluding event is a commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia that will also be livestreamed on the King Center website and Facebook page. The keynote speaker for this service is Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. You can tune in online starting at 10:00 am eastern time on Monday, January 16, 2023.
1. Day of Service
Martin Luther King Day is also a day to serve our neighbors and neighborhoods. You can find ideas and opportunities to get involved in your community at Americorps as well as at the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of the Interior.
2. Social Justice Work
The Episcopal Church’s Social Justice and Advocacy Engagement page provides a list of resources for churches to get involved in social justice work. You can access a “From the Pew to the Public Square” infographic in English and español as well as materials on nonviolent direct action, mental health first aid, the National Bail Fund Network, and the school-to-prison pipeline.
The Poor People’s Campaign is a contemporary movement inspired by King’s initial vision for a Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. The campaign is involved in organizing poor and low-income people as well as all who stand in solidarity with them to advocate moral and political reform that addresses structural social, economic, and ecological injustices and oppressions in the U.S. Their website highlights several reports, including The Souls of Poor Folk Audit and A Poor People’s Pandemic Report, and provides information on how to get involved in the movement.
Editor’s Note: This article was first published on January 18, 2016. It has been revised, updated, and republished for 2023.
Featured image, “Martin Luther King, Jr., head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right, at microphones, after? meeting with President Johnson to discuss civil rights, at the White House,/ WKL” (Dec. 3, 1963), is by Warren K. Leffler at the Library of Congress