Teaching about MLK Jr. in Elementary Music

Teach About Protest Songs

Martin Luther King Jr. frequently utilized protest songs as a means of peaceful protest. (Did you know his mother was a talented singer and instrumentalist and that MLK’s wife, Coretta, attended the New England Conservatory of Music?) Many of these songs are still well-known today – for example, We Shall Overcome, This Little Light of Mine, and Lift Every Voice and Sing. Protestors sang these songs to motivate themselves through long marches and potential harassment and brutality aimed at them. Protest songs can express happiness, sadness, fear, hope, and so much more.

The Birmingham Children’s Crusade is a great example of the power that children have to create change. Children from elementary age all the way through high school held signs, sang freedom songs, and marched daily for nearly a week in order to fight for desegregation.

You can start out by reading Let the Children March, a historical fiction children’s book set in Birmingham in 1963. Then, listen to some examples of freedom songs that could have been sung at the march. Students can practice singing and playing the songs or can even compose their own protest songs. (I have a protest music unit including listening, analysis, and songwriting in my TeachersPayTeachers store!)

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Connect to Blues and Jazz

Prolific jazz guitarist Grant Green wrote his song “The Selma March” in May 1965, while trumpeter Blue Mitchell released “March on Selma” that July. The march in Selma ultimately helped to secure the Federal Voting Rights Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson in August 1965. In 1969, not long after MLK’s untimely death, Herbie Hancock released his song “I Have a Dream” his album The Prisoner.

“Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.”

MLK Jr.’s opening address at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival

MLK described both blues and jazz as “triumphant music” – music that came from creating hope in times of oppression. The idea of genres dominated by Black musicians, of Black musicians commanding stages and demanding to be seen as artists was itself an act of rebellion. Jazz came to be another tool for activism, demanding to be seen, to be heard, to matter.

January and February (Black History Month) should not be the only times blues and jazz are taught in the music classroom. However, it would be remiss to ignore the genres’ connections to Black history in the United States.

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