Activities & Lessons
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (or simply, MLK) is perhaps best known for his “I Have a Dream” speech delivered during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. However, King was more than his memorable speeches. A pivotal leader during the American civil rights movement, King was also passionate about eliminating poverty. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference announced the Poor People’s Campaign at the end of 1967 and began organizing a protest in Washington, D.C. Though King wasn’t able to see his plans realized, the Poor People’s Campaign continued. The following HISTORY® video provides insight into the Poor People’s Campaign after the assassination of MLK.
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the Poor People’s Campaign are just two of his many accomplishments. How do you introduce your students to the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? With such an enormous legacy, it can be a daunting task to properly honor Dr. King, his contributions to the civil rights movement, and his significance in American history and culture. So, we pulled together some Martin Luther King, Jr. project ideas and activities for the classroom.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Activities
1. Make a timeline.
To put the work of MLK into perspective for students, create a timeline of major moments in his life. Assign student teams specific moments in Dr. King’s life to research. Each team can then present each event to the class in chronological order, forming a human timeline along the way. Some key moments to include are:
- 1955: Montgomery Bus Boycott, resulting in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that racial segregation in transportation was unconstitutional
- 1957: Dr. King elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
- 1963: Nonviolent campaign aimed at Birmingham, Alabama, including the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
- 1963: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and “I Have a Dream” speech
- 1964: Nobel Peace Prize win at 35 years old, the youngest person to ever receive the honor
- 1964: Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act
- 1965: Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights in Alabama
- 1965: Congress passed the Voting Rights Act
- 1967: Poor People’s Campaign announced
- 1968: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was tragically assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
2. Deliver speeches.
Listen to the “I Have a Dream” speech and encourage dialogue amongst students about Dr. King’s platform of nonviolence and peace. Consider how his path of nonviolence can still improve our world today. Then, ask students to think about their dreams for the future. How do they want to see the world improve? After time for reflection, have students write and present their own versions of the iconic speech.
3. Make dreams a reality collage.
If delivering “dream” speeches isn’t your class style, another entry point to teaching the “I Have a Dream” speech is with a sentence prompt. “I have a dream that” and “I can make my dream come true by” prompts are easy ways to provoke deeper thought. Turn the dreams into a reality (a real collage, at least) by having students trace their hands on paper of different colors. Cut out the handprints, write their dreams down on the many-colored hands, and arrange them into a beautiful collage of diverse dreams.
4. Hold a parade or a march.
Dr. King championed peaceful protests by organizing marches. Today, we often celebrate MLK Day by having a parade celebrating his life. You can have your own peace parade by having students make signs displaying quotes, hopes, and ideas for spreading peace. Get the grade or even the whole school together if you’re feeling really ambitious!
5. Volunteer in your school or community.
One of MLK’s most famous quotes is, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” Ask this question of your class, and together come up with ways to help others. Consider big and small ways your class can help out in the community, as a group, and as individuals. School project ideas for helping out could be cleaning up a communal space, partnering up with another grade for tutoring moments, or organizing a food drive.
More MLK Project Ideas and Resources
Other resources and more information to help teach Dr. King in the classroom include:
- The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University
- The King Center
- The New York Times archive of MLK content
- The Seattle Times MLK project
- “3 MLK Day Activities for Families” on Shaped
- “MLK Day Bulletin Board Ideas” on Shaped
Want to further immerse your students in history? Learn more about HMH’s new Into Social Studies program for K–6 students.
This blog, originally published in 2019, has been updated for 2021.
HISTORY is a trademark of A&E Television Networks LLC. All rights reserved.
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