Celebrating MLK Day in a Dual Language Classroom

Many people think that to achieve sociocultural competence in a Dual Language program, all students need to do is learn about the visible aspects of the target culture(s).  For instance, Dual Language programs might host a “cultural night,” or they might have students learn a special dance or song to fulfill this pillar of Dual Language Education.  However, sociocultural competence goes deeper.  It ultimately refers to the ability to work, play, and exist amongst those of all cultures.  It is about being able to fight for the rights of those who don’t speak, look, or think like themselves. It is about grappling with our world’s racist and discriminatory history and being willing to change the future.   


Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday provides students the perfect opportunity to deeply explore these elements of sociocultural competence by studying not only Dr. King’s fight against systemic racism but also by learning about other global leaders such as Mohandas K. Gandhi of India and Nelson Mandela of South Africa who, like Dr. King, also embraced nonviolent protests to achieve racial justice.  Through such studies, students can see how all of our struggles are interconnected and how we, like Dr. King, can draw inspiration from others across cultures to make this world a more just place. 


Dr. Martin Luther King: Dr. King was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929.  As a child growing up in the South, Dr. King experienced segregation and unequal opportunities for people of color and hence, developed a deep yearning for social justice. Dr. King followed in his father’s footsteps and became a minister.  As a minister, he studied Mohandas K. Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent disobedience, a system where freedom fighters peacefully protest against or even break unjust laws.  After reading Gandhi’s writings, King organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which led to the desegregation of buses in Alabama.  Following this success, King decided to deepen his understanding of Gandhi’s work by visiting India, where he met with heads of state, Gandhi’s family, and Gandhi’s followers.  When asked about his trip to India, Dr. King stated, “To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India, I come as a pilgrim.”  After his visit, Dr. King organized and participated in a variety of sit-ins and boycotts to protest racial injustice.  After participating in a sit-in in Atlanta, King was arrested and jailed, released only after the then-presidential hopeful, John F. Kennedy’s, intervention.  This was only one of Dr. King’s many trips in and out of jail.  As a great orator, Dr. King preached at the Ebenezer Church in Atlanta and most famously organized the March on Washington, where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream Speech.” In this speech, he declared his dream that someday even the most racist parts of the country would experience racial justice.  Because Dr. King’s actions and words had such a great influence on both liberal Whites and Blacks, Dr. King was hated by many who opposed the Civil Rights Movement.  After surviving a number of assassination attempts, King died at the hands of James Earl Gray in 1968. 


Mahatma Gandhi: While Dr. King is forever sewn into the fabric of The United States’ fight against racism, a man named Mohandas K. Gandhi inspired King’s work.  Known in India as Mahatma or Great Soul, Gandhi was born in British India in 1869.  The British, as colonizers, denied many rights to native Indians such as walking on the sidewalk.  The British also economically drained the country.  For instance, the British prohibited Indians from participating in the textile industry and forced Indians to purchase expensive, British-made cloth.  The British also secured exclusive rights to sell the tea grown in India to other countries.  During his childhood, Gandhi was not particularly moved to fight against these injustices. However, while practicing law in South Africa, Gandhi was literally thrown off a train for continuing to sit in the first-class compartment after a White man had ordered him to move to third class.  At that point, Gandhi became determined to fight against the “deep disease of color prejudice.”  Highly influenced by ancient Hindu scriptures, Gandhi dedicated himself to vegetarianism and nonviolence.  Thus, he began a series of nonviolent protests in South Africa, which he named Satyagraha.  After being released from jail in South Africa, he returned to India, where he led mass boycotts against the British. When India achieved independence from its colonizer in 1947, the country split in two, a largely Hindu India and a largely Muslim Pakistan.  Many Hindus blamed Gandhi for the split and in 1948, Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse shot and killed the Mahatma.  


Nelson Mandela: Another admirer of Gandhi’s work, Nelson Mandela was born in the British dominion of South Africa in 1918.  His parents named him Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela; however, his White school teachers renamed him, Nelson.  Mandela was the son of the Thembu chief, making him royalty amongst the second largest, South African, cultural group.  However, that royalty did not prevent Mandela from being at the bottom of the British dominion’s racial hierarchy.  Like Gandhi, Mandela studied law.  Then, he opened the first Black law firm in South Africa.  Mandela joined the African National Congress through which he participated in nonviolent disobedience such as strikes and boycotts to protest apartheid or South Africa’s legalized system of segregation.  Mandela was jailed for his participation, but upon release, he continued his work through nonviolence.  However, Mandela eventually became disillusioned with the nonviolent campaign and left the country to receive military training.  He later reflected, “But if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end. For me. nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy.” Upon return, Mandela was arrested for leaving the country and charged with treason.  At his trial, he made a four-hour speech in defense of equal rights for the Black citizens of South Africa.  Nevertheless, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment.  During the next 27 years, agitators all over the world lobbied for his release.  Countries began to impose sanctions or economic punishments against South Africa.  Finally, in 1990, South African President F.W. de Clerk released Mandela and the following year, ended apartheid.  In 1994, Nelson Mandela became the first Black president of South Africa. Mandela died in 2013 of natural causes.   


Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Activities with Students: 


  1. Read books about all three Civil Rights leaders.   
    1. Elementary: Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Martin Luther King by Doreen Rappaport, I am Gandhi by Brad Meltzer, Nelson Mandela by Jennifer Strand   
    2. Middle School: Trailblazers: Martin Luther King, Jr.: Fighting for Civil Rights, by Christine Platt. Mahatma Gandhi: The Father of a Nation by Subhadra Sen Gupta, Nelson Mandela: The Authorized Comic Book by Nelson Mandela Foundation  
    3. High School: A Time to Break Silence: The Essential Works of Martin Luther King, Jr., for Students, My Experiments With Truth by Mohandas K. Gandhi, Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela 
  2. Create a Venn Diagram that highlights the similarities and differences amongst the three leaders. 
  3. Contrast Mahatma Gandhi’s and Nelson Mandela’s opinions about the use of nonviolent disobedience.  Whose opinion did Dr. Martin Luther King share?  
  4. Discuss with students how the three nations’ struggles against racial injustice demonstrate the interconnectedness of people across cultures. 
  5. Volunteer with your students.  MLK Day is nationally known as a day of service.  Since all three leaders were once political prisoners, consider, after studying about the three activists, having your students participate in letter-writing campaigns for Amnesty International to free current political prisoners around the world. 

Aradhana Mudambi
Author: Aradhana Mudambi

Dr. Aradhana Mudambi is an accomplished, multilingual educator and social justice activist. She is the proud owner of Social Justice and Education. She is currently the Director of Multilingual Education at Framingham Public Schools, Adjunct Professor of Intercultural Communications at Eastern Connecticut State University, and President of the Multistate Association for Bilingual Education. She has extensive experience writing grants for language acquisition programs. She is also an experienced advocate for Dual Language Education and World Languages, having been invited recently to speak at institutions such as Harvard University and the National Association of Bilingual Education. You can learn more about her and her work at www.socialjusticeandeducation.org.

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