Martin Luther King, Jr., has been one of my heroes as long as I can remember. Since my son Nicholas was 3 years old, I’ve made a point of doing something on Martin Luther King Day each year to remember Dr. King and his principles. That first year, we discussed the basics of the civil rights movement and Dr. King’s assassination and attended an interdenominational service where some of Dr. King’s speeches and essays were read. Other years, we’ve read a children’s book about civil rights, volunteered at National Day of Service activities, or watched Dr. King’s speeches on YouTube.
This year, Nicholas is 8 years old and in second grade. As in kindergarten and first grade, his school did some teaching about Dr. King in the week before the holiday. We went into the holiday weekend with no set plans for commemorating the holiday, and then I wound up with a headache that came and went all weekend, interfering with the chores I needed to get done.
Nicholas announced on Monday morning that he had decided what we would do for the holiday: He would make a board game about Martin Luther King, Jr., and then we all would play it together. He spent several hours making the game board while I washed dishes, packed up Christmas decorations, and did other chores.
You can see that Martinopoly is based on Monopoly. Nicholas has enjoyed playing with our Monopoly set for years, but we’ve played the actual game only a few times because–famous though it is–Monopoly actually is a pretty dull game, and the rules are complicated and kind of annoying; sometimes I feel like we own and occasionally play the game only for the sake of cultural literacy! Anyway, this activity made clear that Nicholas does not really understand the rules of Monopoly, but that’s okay. His goal was to make a game board on which we could move our pieces and gain and lose fake money, while talking about Dr. King. The incomplete rules actually helped to bring up several issues of the civil rights movement!
Nicholas started his board by drawing what he felt were the most important spaces: GO, Jail, and the railroads–not only is he a lifelong train enthusiast, but the railroads are mentioned frequently in the Chance and Community Chest cards, which he wanted to use rather than make a new set.
Next he filled in some spaces with separate, unequal facilities. Look at the difference between those school buildings! (When I looked up the name of Dr. King’s high school, at Nick’s request, he wrote it next to the white school instead of the black school. Oh well–it was another opportunity to talk about how these things worked: Martin Luther King, Jr., had to go to the black school, which was named Booker T. Washington after a famous African-American.)
One interesting conversation we had about the game was triggered by my noticing that Nicholas had used the word “black” to label things, whereas the real signs for segregated facilities usually said “colored”. Why was that? Because there are changes over time in what words are considered polite or correct names for groups of people. We had talked about this before in various contexts; Nicholas finds the subject fascinating and again asked me to list as many such changes as I could recall from my lifetime. My understanding is that this particular terminology shift had to do with African-Americans choosing to use the word “black” to describe their heritage and develop pride in it, rather than calling themselves what they had been called by oppressive white culture; in my Time-Life book about the 1960s (published in 1970) I found some information about this and read it to Nicholas.
I’m not sure how being profiled in The New Yorker relates to either Dr. King or Monopoly, but it’s a nice bonus! (I did a little research but found no evidence that The New Yorker ever interviewed Dr. King, though it certainly has mentioned him in more recent years.)
Washington, D.C., was Nick’s own idea because he knew that Dr. King had organized a big march and given a famous speech there. He asked me to name some other places where Dr. King worked; after naming a few off the top of my head, I got a list from Wikipedia for Nicholas to use as he filled in more squares. Instead of the Atlantic City street names used in the original Monopoly, many of the places in Martinopoly are places Dr. King worked against segregation and other places affected by the civil rights movement.
He made paper playing pieces with little folded bases to hold them upright: a marching person, a bus, a train, and a car, representing four ways Dr. King traveled.
Bartlesville Public Library makes an appearance here because I recently reread The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown by Louise S. Robbins, the story of a librarian fired for her actions toward racial equality, and had explained the story to Nicholas and read him some of the more startling parts. Miss Brown was fired in 1950, but that story certainly relates to the beginnings of the 1960s civil rights movement. Nicholas made the connection himself and only asked me to spell the words and show him a photo of the library in the book.
I like the way Rosa Parks turned into a park, with shrubbery. He does know what Rosa Parks did.
Chicago says “Illinois Ave.” on it because Nicholas went through the Chance and Community Chest cards checking for references to Monopoly locations and making sure that he had an equivalent location in Martinopoly. For the same reason, there’s a “St. Charles” on the board–you can see it in the bottom row in the first picture–which Nicholas chose to represent as a church because Dr. King often spoke in churches, maybe even a St. Charles Church somewhere.
My list of place names included the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Lorraine Motel, and St. Joseph’s Hospital, but Nicholas was getting tired and not leaving enough space above his drawings to write all those words. I’m impressed by his drawing of the bridge, though–he saw a picture of it in my book about the 1960s and then drew it from memory.
When we played the game, Nicholas gave each player one bill of each denomination of Monopoly money. Daniel and I started to object that there is a standard (larger) amount of money with which you start the game–but wait! For learning about the lives of African-Americans before and during the civil rights movement (heck, even now, unfortunately) it makes sense to start with less money!
Nicholas hadn’t made any title deeds for the places shown on his board because he was tired–so we couldn’t own property; when we landed on a space, we were just paying rent. This too is parallel to the African-American experience: It was difficult for them to own property, especially in the South, and many were victimized by landlords charging high rents for run-down houses.
Two out of three players ran out of money pretty quickly. (The other was just lucky.) Nicholas tried to set up some kind of bank-loan scheme so we could keep playing longer, but ultimately he admitted the rules needed work.
Still, making and playing this game was an educational experience:
- Nicholas chose the materials and figured out for himself how to put together a game board that folds in quarters.
- He modeled his game after an existing game, deciding which features to copy and which to modify.
- He thought about the life journey of Martin Luther King, Jr., and how to express it in board game form.
- He demonstrated what he knew about segregation.
- He practiced his drawing skills and handwriting.
- He learned the names of places involved in the civil rights movement.
- He made a connection between something else he had learned about civil rights (the story of Ruth Brown) and the work of Dr. King.
- He learned more about racial terminology used in our society and the history and shades of meaning of these terms.
- He thought about economic inequality and its ongoing effects on African-Americans. (When you aren’t starting with something, it is harder to make your earnings cover your expenses.)
- He learned about how the rules of a game create a satisfying or frustrating playing experience, and about how that experience can relate to the feelings you’re trying to evoke in the players.
Not bad for a day off school!
The best thing about this project was that Nicholas thought of it himself and did nearly all of the work himself. All I did was look up some place names and pictures, suggest using colored pencils rather than crayons or markers (because coloring with a thick tip can make your writing illegible), and talk about history and related concepts. As with the science projects, I think he learns more when we parents refrain from “helping” too much.