Becoming a Citizen on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

By Bill Bliss

In recent years it has become a January tradition for special naturalization ceremonies to occur in conjunction with the national holiday commemorating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a fitting tradition given how Dr. King's leadership to end racial discrimination against Blacks in the United States has served to inspire the effort to provide equal rights to all members of society, including the nation’s immigrants. Of all Dr. King’s many eloquent writings and speeches, I believe this passage from his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (April 1963) most pointedly connects the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to the continuing effort to provide justice, equal opportunity, and hope to our nation’s newest citizens:

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial 'outside agitator' idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."

General Colin Powell on Dr. King's Legacy and Naturalization

At a naturalization event in 2010 sponsored by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, DC, General Colin Powell, U.S. Army (Ret.), offered a keynote address that tied the civil rights struggle and Dr. King's legacy to the importance of immigration and diversity to the vitality of the nation. You can view General Powell's speech here. (His remarks about Dr. King begin at 03:33, and he offers a wonderful account of the Powell family's Jamaican immigrant roots at 08:30.)

Dr. King and the Citizenship Exam

Two of the current citizenship exam's "100 questions" test students' knowledge of this topic:

  1. What movement tried to end racial discrimination?  (The civil rights movement.)

  2. What did Martin Luther King, Jr. do?  (He fought for civil rights. / He worked for equality for all Americans.)

The Voices of Freedom citizenship text prepares students for these questions and offers other background information about the civil rights movement and Dr. King.  You can view these lessons here.  The text also prompts students to share their opinions about two questions:  How do you think the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s helps immigrants in the United States today?  In your opinion, is there still discrimination in the United States?

An Oratorical Contest

Although it obviously isn't required knowledge for the citizenship exam, the text offers for enrichment some of the most famous excerpts from Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The Teacher’s Guide invites you to have students prepare these excerpts to present to the class. You can even do this as an oratorical contest and offer a prize for the best rendition.

However you choose to cover the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in your citizenship classes, I hope you and your students seize the opportunity to make the connections between this important chapter of U.S. history and the ongoing quest for justice, equal rights, and opportunity for all in our increasingly diverse nation.