Although Monday is officially recognized as Martin Luther King Day, today is the civil rights leader’s actual birthday. Born in Atlanta on January 15, 1929, King would have turned 86 today. How much do you actually know about him and the movement he led? (Article continues below quiz.)

Most of us know at least a little something about the man: a black civil rights leader who delivered the famous “I Have a Dream” speech and was assassinated for his efforts, and for whom we get a day off.

For most Americans, though, knowledge about Dr. King — and understanding of civil rights history overall — doesn’t go too far beyond that. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, for instance, reported that only 2 percent of high school seniors could correctly answer a basic question about the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.

A 2011 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) looked at public K-12 education standards and curriculum requirements in every state, and found that 35 states – including California – failed to cover many of the core concepts and details about the Civil Rights Movement. Sixteen of these states (including Iowa and New Hampshire) did not require any instruction about the movement.

“For too many students, their civil rights education boils down to two people and four words: Rosa Parks, Dr. King and ‘I have a dream,’” said Maureen Costello, director of SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance program. “By having weak or non-existent standards for history, particularly for the Civil Rights Movement, (most states) are saying loud and clear that it isn’t something students need to learn.”

The study also found that much of what is taught about the movement in schools largely focuses on major leaders and events, but fails to address the systemic and often persistent issues like racism and economic injustice.

Throughout the country, Dr. King is honored as a national hero. City boulevards bear his name, and two years ago a memorial on the National Mall in Washington was unveiled. But if Dr. King’s teachings aren’t passed on to younger generations, the report notes, then all these tributes fall short of maintaining his legacy.

  • Abby

    There is definitely still racism in Palo Alto. With that said, we have done all we can to stop it from happening even more. This is an improvement. In the 1960’s no one even TRIED to help out or stand up to wrong/racist people. This was a job left to MLK. Martin Luther King Jr. had strong intentions, but he knew the world could never be perfect. If Dr. King came into Palo Alto, I think he would like what he saw.

  • Jonathan

    It would be great if the title of Mr. Green’s article referenced King as Martin Luther King, Jr. and not just “Martin Luther King.” Martin Luther King, Sr. was his father who outlived him. The federal holiday established in 1986 was for King, Jr. and not his father, who died in 1984.


Matthew Green

Matthew Green runs KQED’s News Education Project, an online resource for educators and the general public to help explain the news. The project lives at

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