Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the Most Meaningful Way

Lead your class on a journey into the past, so that they understand the true meaning of what inspired this holiday.

By Barry Nitikman


Martin Luther King statue

Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century. His leadership was crucial to the great achievements of the civil rights era. Set the scene of the 1950s South by showing images of white-only facilities, separate water fountains, waiting rooms, schools, and the like. I have a specific approach that I’ve taken with Martin Luther King Jr. Day for many years. I believe it gives the children a powerful sense of the impact and meaning of the civil rights era. My approach focuses on the overall events of this important period in history, rather than just on Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) himself. I feel that the events that occurred must be made very real to your class if you want them to have an appreciation for the sheer drama of that time, and for the magnitude of what was accomplished.

I’ll first explain the various key points and how I suggest you approach them. Then at the bottom of the page, I will provide a step-by-step guideline (cheat sheet) to make things simple and organized. This lesson is very effective, and the materials (mostly video and images) are all readily available from Google Images and YouTube. You can assemble everything you need in 10-15 minutes. I think this approach is infinitely preferable to just reading your class a story, or even having them read it. Below are the steps to follow to give your kids a dramatic and meaningful lesson on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights era.

Vocabulary and Important Terminology

It is imperative that you at least cover some basic vocabulary so your kids will understand the thread of events. Obviously, this can get very involved, but here is a short list:

  • Segregation
  • Integration
  • Desegregation
  • Jim Crow
  • Civil rights
  • Racism
  • Discrimination
  • Separate but equal

Establish the Historical Context

Begin by establishing exactly what the situation was in the South at the time. A good example to use is the Jim Crow environment: white-only restrooms and waiting rooms, white and colored drinking fountains, segregated schools, etc. The best way to get this idea across to your learners, is to show them. I suggest passing out pictures. (Note: at this point in the lesson, I would show them, or pass out just the situational images, and not the most dramatic. Later you will show images of Bull Conner’s dogs attacking marchers, and the like. Save those for now.) The idea is that pupils need to see this and think about it in order to realize just how depraved the situation was. I suggest brief think-pair-shares, or something similar so they can share their thoughts and feelings about what they’re seeing.

As I mentioned, everything you need is available through Google Images. Do a search for civil rights era, Jim Crow South, or whites only, and you’ll get many great examples. When you’re done with this initial part, your kids should be thinking of the unjust situation that existed at the time, and how the affected people must have felt living like this on a day-to-day basis.

The Non-Violent, Civil Disobedience of Mahatma Gandhi

You can now shift the scene and introduce how Mahatma Gandhi was a major influence on MLK's life. Gandhi was able to secure the freedom of 250 million of his countrymen in India through his brilliant strategy of non-violent resistance. India had been ruled for a long time by the British and were treated as second-class citizens, much the same as blacks in the American South. Both people groups wanted their freedom. Have your students talk about this and take notes, so that they understand the basic point:

  • While blacks in the American South and Indians under the Raj lived in strikingly different environments, their basic problem remained the same: How could they achieve independence from oppressive rule?

Following this, introduce the key to Gandhi's plan: Use civil disobedience rather than armed resistance. This plan was intended to accomplish several goals:

  1. It causes hardship and economic loss for the oppressors.
  2. If they are forced to act in a violent way, the media can report on this, and the images and video of these events can cause great embarrassment to the rulers.
  3. Overall, the idea is to wear down the rulers, so that it is just too much trouble to maintain the status quo. And, hopefully, being forced to act in a brutal way against peaceful, unarmed protesters takes its toll on those who must administer the violent response

Gandhi took full advantage of the ever-increasing reach of the news media to make the British pay a steep price in world opinion for their treatment of the Indian people. Gandhi's strategy has now been followed successfully many times and in many different places in the world.

In my experience, I have found that this is not a difficult concept for 5th-6th graders to understand.

The Salt March 

Before showing The Salt March video clip from the movie Gandhi, make sure to explain the background. The Indians were denied access to the salt works, which were their own natural resources. Followers of Gandhi engaged in a symbolic march to retake the salt works, knowing that they would be denied access by British-led troops (which were Indian nationals, making this even more effective).

The key point is that the marchers would march peacefully right up to the gates and not stop until they were forced to. They knew that they would be denied access, and in a violent way. This is where it is important to be dramatic. Make your kids think about this:

  • How would they feel, marching up that gate, knowing they would be stopped with a violent response?
  • Point out that there is a reporter there for a major international paper, who will be observing, and writing about the entire event - Why will this be important?

Now it is time to show the film clip. It is an utterly gripping and devastating scene. The violence is not overly graphic in the sense of gore, but there is blood. However, it is the sheer relentlessness of the attacks upon peaceful protesters that is so compelling. Man after man marched to the gate, after having seen each person before him clubbed over the head and knocked to the ground. That is the key: they are doing this knowing they are going to be bashed in the head, and yet they have the courage to continue. This same courage will be very present later on in the American civil rights movement.

To wrap up the video-clip segment, have a brief discussion about the courage it would take to participate in such an extraordinary demonstration. This is your segue to the events in the American South during the civil rights era.

Sit-ins and Protests in the South

Following The Salt March, I show my students images and video of the protests that were staged in the South. But first, I stress the key elements of Gandhi's plan:

  1. A non-violent approach: The protesters will not respond with violence, regardless of how they are attacked or abused.
  2. As much as possible, plan for these activities to occur with press coverage. Have newspaper reporters and cameras present, so that the violent actions of the police, city leaders, whites in attendance, et al, will be shown far and wide. The authorities will be embarrassed and the world will cry out with condemnation.

Gandhi's influence was ultimately the key to MLK's great success. He knew, and was able to convince others, that the non-violent approach was the way to bring change because violent resistance was a doomed failure. Like Gandhi, MLK was a powerful, charismatic, and determined leader who had the force of will to get others to follow him, even when it meant great sacrifice and personal risk.

To expose your learners to the famous sit-ins and protests in the South, start by showing them this brief 3:45 minute video clip which covers the Woolworth Sit-In, the original Freedom Ride, and some subsequent events. There are so many videos and images available, that it is difficult to choose from among them. However, this one is simple and to the point. Following the video, construct a class discussion, or have pupils write their thoughts on these questions:

  1. What have you just seen, and how does it make you feel?
  2. How does it relate to Gandhi’s ideas of civil disobedience?
  3. How effectively do you think Gandhi’s methods succeeded?

To wrap this up, conclude that the methods employed by MLK were very effective; indeed, it was a brilliant approach that forced not only the South, but the entire country, to look at the terrible injustices that were a daily part of life for countless African-Americans. A good wrap-up is to show footage of MLK’s famous speech during the March on Washington.

Cheat Sheet

Here is a basic step-by-step guide to follow when presenting this lesson, though I know you will want to adjust for your own style and class.

  1. Intro: Very important man, very important events, dramatic changes occurred in our country as a result.
  2. Establish the situation that existed in the Jim Crow South. Show images of the Jim Crow South: colored only drinking fountains, waiting rooms, etc.
  3. Discuss Gandhi and the idea of non-violent civil disobedience. Great inspiration for MLK, because it worked in India. Resulted in the liberation of 250 million people from British rule.
  4. Show salt clip from the film Gandhi. Stress the sheer courage shown by the protestors.
  5. Segue to the American South, and show images or video from sit-ins. Talk about protesters' courage. Ask kids to discuss the kind of strength it would take to stand up to that sort of abuse that you knew was coming, just as the Indian protestors did in their country.
  6. Show the video, which depicts important events in the civil rights era. Stress idea of non-violent civil disobedience, and the connection with Gandhi. Also, discuss why MLK believed it would be more effective than armed resistance.
  7. Discuss the ideas indicated above, in the manner you prefer: think/pair/share, class discussion, a short written piece, a presentation, etc.
  8. Review/discuss the role of MLK as a great leader and speaker, and show the video clip of his “I Have a Dream” speech.