MLK Day 2021: A Suggested Syllabus to Inspire Your Day “On”

by | January 18, 2021

Today is MLK Day, but Friday was his actual birthday — and he would have been 92 years old. Instead, he was assassinated almost 53 years ago at only 39 years young. It took almost 20 years and countless failed bills to actually pass legislation to make today a federal holiday — the first in recognition of a private citizen, a non-President, a Black American. 

Observed on the third Monday in January as “a day on, not a day off,” MLK Day is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service to encourage all Americans to volunteer in their communities.

Below is a short syllabus to help you pause, shift your mindset away from daily demands, and reflect on what this day represents particularly as we anticipate the change of administration this Wednesday, with the full range of emotion that brings.



One-Hour Syllabus

[5 minutes] We Shall Overcome: Start with Mavis Staples singing “We Shall Overcome” at the 2014 Civil Rights Summit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act.

[17 minutes] I Have A Dream: Watch the full 17-minute speech, no multitasking. (Have you watched it in full? If not, that’s ok! Now’s the time.)

[30 minutes] Study up on Stacey: See how that dream and legacy of political organizing are very alive in the work of Stacey Abrams — native Mississippian, member of the Georgia House of Representatives for 11 years (seven of them as Minority Leader), the first Black woman to be a nominee for Governor for a major party in US history, voter suppression warrior, and romance novelist. (Note: Did you know she has written not just one, but eight romance novels, under the pen name Selena Montgomery? Because nobody is just one thing. People contain multitudes. May we all model that for the students and children in our care.)

  • [13 minutes] Listen to her TED Talk about opening gates (maybe you’re one of the 1.2M people who have already watched?)
  • [7 minutes] Listen to her speech about MLK on MLK Day 2019 as she accepted an award at her alma mater Spelman College — just 3 months after the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election. Start at 1:28.
  • [10 minutes] Listen to some highlights of her speaking on MLK Day 2020. Skip the intro. Start at ~8:00 if you want the framing and panelist intros. Start at ~14:00 for the full conversation with Theodore Johnson. Or just go straight to the seven-minute clip from ~25:00-31:30 where she discusses why she got involved in state-level leadership, how she worked to rebuild capacity within her party (68 colleagues), how she decided to run for governor, and what it looks like to center communities of color and bring white voters to the table. Then, she goes further into that topic when asked the question point blank — from 1:10:49-1:13:13.

[6 minutes] Close out with the upbeat optimism of Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday,” written in celebration of MLK Day — lyrics and more here.


Extended Syllabus

Service: You’re probably getting lots of newsletters and roundups of volunteer opportunities. Emerson Collective’s is particularly actionable.

Movie: Watch the new film MLK/FBI about the government’s surveillance and harassment of MLK, by director Sam Pollard (perhaps best known as the editor on Spike Lee’s films). Available to watch on Amazon or AppleTV for $6.99.

Speeches: Watch even more speeches by MLK, in full.

Connect your work to your why.

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