Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Impact on Civil Rights

By Eric Antuna on January 11, 2010

Observing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday (January 15) provides an excellent opportunity to teach students about Dr. King's legacy of tolerance, equality and respect. Using literature and classroom discussion, students of any age can understand the importance and courageousness that Dr. King and his supporters faced on a daily basis fighting for civil rights. Here are some simple activities that you can do with your students in observance of this beloved man who helped spearhead a movement based on love for fellow human beings.

Use a discussion about Dr. King's hopes and dreams as an interesting way to engage students' in learning about what he did to improve civil rights in the United States. Encourage students to think critically about the concepts of racism, prejudice and discrimination. Talk about how they would feel if they were discriminated against or denied access somewhere because of their outside differences. 


One pre-discussion idea is to bring in a bag of packaged treats and choose some students to have a treat over others based on some illogical factor, such as, students that have black shoes as opposed to those who have brown shoes or students with brown pants as opposed to blue jeans. Jane Elliott, an Iowa teacher, did a similar, but also very controversial experiment with her students in 1968 after Dr. King was assassinated. You can see the full documentary about her experiment on PBS's Frontline: A Class Divided. Note: I don't recommend this program for younger students to watch, but do recommend it for teachers and high school students.

After participating in this exercise, interview students on how they felt about receiving the treat or not receiving it, and discuss its fairness. Students that received the prize (treat) will undoubtedly feel justified they received it, while the others that did not receive it will feel rejected. Handle the discussion with care and allow them to discuss their feelings.

Move the discussion into Dr. King and his life and how he became involved in civil rights action. Read books like A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr. Warning: There is an illustrated drawing of when he was shot at the Memphis hotel! You may want to choose Celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with Mrs. Park's Class as a way to pull in students about the factual events that led up to the change in federal laws. You can use his speech or view a slide show to show students how he was able to help fuel a movement towards equality and fairness. Another great resource is BrainPop (must have a subscription to this service) to introduce Dr. King and his life to your students.


After students have some background knowledge on the subject, you can have them work in different learning centers focusing on different aspects of Dr. King's life. Here is how I plan to use centers on this topic in my classroom:

Listening Center:
Our school has a listening center copy of the book A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr. for students to hear. I will have students listen to the book at this center and then ask them to make a tree map to explain how things were BEFORE and AFTER Martin Luther King Jr. efforts helped change civil rights law.

Guided Reading:
Our school is fortunate to have six copies of Hello Reader!® Level 4: Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Man of Peace. I use this book with my group for guided reading. I have found that students love to read this book because it has actual photographs of Dr. King. If you don't have enough copies of a book, you may use this FREE printable minibook from about Dr. King, or become a member and get this fabulous minibook about Dr. King's life. If you have an interactive whiteboard you can use this blown up version for the minibook whole class. Don't have an interactive whiteboard? Check out how to make one for less than $100 here.

Computer Center:
I would have students watch his speech again and then have them see this clip from Weston Woods' version of Martin's Big Words. There is also a great interview with Maya Angelou commenting on Dr. King's life that I would have students watch.  Then, I would have students read this online book about Dr. King and then have students would test their knowledge of Dr. King's life using this quiz.

Scholastic News Center:
Have students put the minibook together from this month's Scholastic News, and read it. Then have students start the first and third page of the "Dream Mobile" found on  

Math Center:
Students can practice math facts with flash cards and/or math worksheets and finish the second page from the "Dream Mobile" found on

Reading Center:
Allow students to self select books about Martin Luther King, Jr. to read independently (see my list below of the books that I've ordered over the years that I plan to use in my class). Also, you can set out materials for students to use to work on creating a mural. I use pieces of construction paper with this printable (courtesy of on the top and this FREE printable on the bottom. An example of the mural wall can be seen on the top of the printable.  

As a way to close the centers, direct students to assemble the mobile from the Math Center and the Scholastic News Center at their desks after everything is cleaned up.  


Encourage parents and students to pledge time for a day of service on January 18th. Perhaps there are some local organizations in your neighborhood that could use help.  Here are some ideas:

Martin Luther King Day of Service

AARP Foundation

Take Time to Pledge Hours In Your Neighborhood


Before I Made History: Let's Dream, Martin Luther King, Jr.!

If You Lived at the Time of Martin Luther King

Happy Birthday Martin Luther King

Martin's Big Words:The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (there is also a discussion guide to this book)


Martin Luther King, Jr. The Legacy of a Leader 

Commemorate the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Teaching About Martin Luther King, Jr. (There is a video link on a site hosted by YouTube, which is not allowed on my school server. You can access the same video from which has commentary in addition to the speech and is well worth viewing).

If you have any other ideas on how to celebrate this courageous man's life, please share! I hope to hear from you soon.

Thanks for reading!



Thank you for the wonderful resources! We watched "My Friend Martin" in class on Friday. The movie was very engaging for the kids. They learned a lot and I could tell that the message really got to them. It left them eager to learn more about Martin and his life.


Thanks for commenting! It's so imperative that all students understand the struggles that Martin Luther King, Jr. faced as well at the issues of that decade. I'm so glad your students were eager to learn about this courageous man's life.



By the way, love your website!

Great ideas and resources! Thanks so much for sharing. There is a great movie called "My Friend Martin" that does a great job about telling his story and message.

Megan Power


Thanks for the tip!


WOW! There are such great ideas here and I love how you remind us of all the history surrounding this day. All of your activities offer students a chance to become more aware of history and make/take meaningful acitivities with them.


Thanks for comment, I am always inspired by you.


What a gem of information for lower grades. you get an A +.


Thanks! I would think your students might be very interested in the PBS Frontline show. Thanks again!


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