Community Things to Do

Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Indy: Where to Go, What to See

Cover image courtesy of Kennedy King Memorial Initiative and Chris Bucher Photographs

The third Monday of every January is set aside to honor one of this nation’s most memorable historical figures – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and all that he accomplished when it comes to advancing the civil liberties of all Americans, especially people of color.

While Dr. King’s message was focused on civil disobedience and peaceful protests that were deeply rooted in his Christian beliefs and ministry, his life was tragically cut short. He was killed by an assassin opposed to his message of equality for all and desegregation in workplaces, schools and communities on April 4, 1968.

Before he died, however, MLK Jr. was the youngest man to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts toward racial equality, and his “I Have a Dream” speech, which was given on the National Mall in Washington D.C. became an iconic part of U.S. history and is still often repeated or quoted today.

When Is MLK Jr. Day, and What’s It All About?

This year, MLK Jr. Day is on Monday, January 16. It was first recognized as a federal holiday in 1983, but it wasn’t formally adopted by all 50 states until 2000. The celebration is designed to promote equal rights for all people, regardless or race, color, religion, gender or disabilities, and it’s a huge day for volunteer work and activism.

Since the vast majority of banks, federal buildings, offices and even many commercial businesses shut down for the day, it’s also become an opportunity for people to explore their communities, learn more about the history of civil rights in this great land and investigate unique aspects of this very multicultural country.

Where Can You Go, and What Can You Do to Honor the Day?

Indianapolis is a thriving metropolis, and that means that there’s no shortage of events designed to encourage individuals, couples and families to all get out of the house and explore – and, in perfect keeping with Dr. King’s desires for equality, many of the events are actually free (so that money is no barrier to either a good experience or education).

With that in mind, here are some of the options you have:

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

The Children’s Museum is one of those places you really need to visit again and again, because it’s always changing – and admission is entirely free for both adults and kids from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on MLK Day. (It’s probably wisest to get the tickets online in advance.)

Special programming for the day includes storyteller Portia Jackson as she talks about the children involved in the Civil Rights Movement, an interactive artwork project with visiting artist Ashley Nora and performances by the Griot Drum Ensemble of authentical West African drumming.

The Indiana State Museum

This is another place that you can go over and over again and always find something new. When you go to their free admission day on MLK Day, you can see historical video of Dr. King’s famous speeches and other events, as well as learn about other freedom fighters like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. 

Guests are being gently encouraged to help their community via cash donations of any amount to Gleaners Food Bank. It’s also important to note that parking is free, but not guaranteed – and it’s wise to order your tickets in advance.

Eiteljorg Museum

The Eiteljorg Museum, which is home to one of the most extensive collections of Native American and Western art and artifacts in the nation, also offers free admission to all of its regular and special exhibitions on MLK Day.

The day’s focus will be on learning more about the history of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his era, while sharing your own dreams on a community comment wall. There will also be information available about Black-owned businesses that need your support, as well as films and books that can be used for both adults and children who want to learn more.

Conner Prairie Day

Conner Prairie is always a local favorite for celebrations of all kinds, and they’re opening their doors for free on MLK to help build deeper bonds within the community identity and celebrate the ideals of “love over violence, hope over fear, and unity over divisiveness.” What better honorific can there be?

Tickets are first-come, first-serve at the counter on the day of the event, but in addition to all of the usual delights that Conner Prairie has to offer up, there will also be a blood drive, collaborative and individual art projects, the chance to create your own podcast, drumming, dancing, singing and films. This is more than an event – it’s a whole experience!

Madam Walker Legacy Center 

On January 16, starting at noon, the Walker Theatre will honor Dr. King’s life and accomplishments for the 41st year in a row. Tickets are entirely free, but registration is necessary to reserve a spot at this well-attended event.

This year’s speaker is award-winning social justice warrior, Tamika D. Mallory, who has been featured in both Time and Fortune for her leadership roles, including helping to develop and organize the 2017 Women’s March on Washington as one of the four national chairpersons.

The Indiana Historical Society

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Indiana Historical Society will be offering a number of engaging activities throughout MLK Day at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center. While all events are free, participants are heavily encouraged to register in advance.

Guests can participate in service activities that will help their community and are invited to participate in the drive for Charity Cares Early Academy with donations of cash, new clothing and new or gently-used books. While there, visitors will also have the chance to listen to music by the University Methodist Church Praise Team and others, as well as listen to storytelling.

The Indianapolis Zoo

The Indy Zoo is usually closed to the public on Mondays, but they’re making an exception for MLK Day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. – and admission is free with a donation of either food items or cash, which will go to either The Exchange at the Indianapolis Urban League or Gleaner’s Food Bank, respectively.

If you’re worried that you won’t see much at the zoo in the cold weather – don’t be. The indoor exhibits are always the same, and there are plenty of cold-friendly animals (like sea lions, tigers and brown bears – oh my!) who will be out and about.

As always, it’s wise to remember that we’re still in cold and flu season, and COVID-19 variants are ramping up, so consider wearing a mask for your outing. Most of all, however, take this opportunity to both reconnect with your loved ones and reflect on the promises of the past and our obligations to the future. You won’t regret it!