Revisiting the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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mlk1January 20 is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This year, invite students to open their minds by first opening their ears. Explore Dr. King’s continued significance through music.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Christopher Columbus are the only historical figures who never served as President for which the Federal government commemorates with a day of recognition. This August the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial opens on the Mall in Washington, DC. Forty-two years after his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. remains relevant. Today’s students, may be most familiar with his I Have a Dream speech; it is worthy of studying. However, it is not the only way to access Dr. King’s legacy. This year, ask students to don some headphones and revisit Dr. King’s contributions by listening to music inspired by his work and his times.

The History of a Day

Begin by asking students what we commemorate on this day, and why. List the terms they associate with Martin Luther King, Jr. on a cluster map. Ask students to share their thoughts and record each suggested term. Place a small tally next to those that are mentioned repeatedly. For visual learners, you might also post photographs or printouts of key terms. (Have photographs available for key terms or names you expect will come up.) Briefly review the map and how terms related to each other.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Nearly two decades later, President Reagan signed the bill into law that created Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Rarely do we consider how or why a holiday is born. Revisit ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson’s coverage of that moment. Donaldson’s story suggests everyone did not support the holiday. Who was opposed and why? To learn more about the history of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the politics that affected its creation, read Time magazine’s article ‘A Brief History of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day’. For a longer explanation of the history of this day, read the New York Times article, ‘Broader Acceptance Sought for King Holiday’. Ask students to discuss whether things have changed since the New York Times article was written.

The Music for a ManMinister Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching at an event

The Civil Rights Movement was a complex collection of many events that required the work and sacrifice of countless people, many of them unsung, historically anonymous heroes. It was not a chaotic, spontaneous Movement but an orchestrated, organized one from which Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as the most recognizable leader. His speeches resonated with audiences then, and his words remain politically and culturally relevant.  A handful of songs celebrate Dr. King’s life. However, Dr. King’s work cannot be separated from the Civil Rights realities of his times. Thankfully, offers many of these songs with videos featuring historical footage.

YouTube does not edit the content or quality of the videos users post; nor, does it restrict user comments. For some school districts, these are reasons to block YouTube. Surely, they are reasons for teachers to preview pages. However, among YouTube’s vast array of videos are many of merit. Oftentimes, it is the only place to find a video with legitimate links to the classroom, free of charge. The videos below each feature a song that was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. accompanied by historical photographs, headlines, or video footage. Sound and sight together packs a powerful punch.

Conduct a jigsaw activity in which small groups of students watch and discuss one video each.  To model this, show the class Sam Cooke’s classic Civil Rights song, ‘A Long Time Coming’. The video that accompanies it begins with scenes from the Civil Rights Movement (many drawn from the PBS series, ‘Eyes on the Prize’) and closes with an excerpt from President Obama’s presidential victory speech. For a more provocative discussion, play only the audio of the song first—without the video or the Obama excerpt. Ask students to share the images the song conjures. Then, play it again with the video and excerpt. Was it what they imagined? How does President Obama’s excerpt alter the meaning of the song? How do the song and images connect to their earlier discussion? What would they add to the cluster map? What questions does the video raise? (Little bit of trivia: Obama was nominated for President at the Democratic Convention 45 years to the day that Dr. King gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.)

Assign student groups one of the following songs/videos. Students may benefit from watching the video repeatedly: once to take in both audio and visual components and to record initial reactions, a second time to listen to the lyrics, and once again to examine the images with no sound. Ask a representative from each group to report to the class what they heard and saw in the video: the message of the lyrics, how the images/lyrics connect to the cluster map discussion, what they add to their understanding of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his times, how the lyrics and images work together to deepen your understanding of each, what questions they raise, and the one clip that resonated most with the group.

  • Dion’s ‘Abraham, Martin, and John’remembers four historical figures who each fought for civil rights. Students might wonder: How did Martin Luther King, Jr. free a lot of people? What do Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John (and Bobby) Kennedy have in common? Explain these lyrics: “Didn’t you love the things they stood for? Didn’t they try to find something good in you and me?” Pause on the first screen to consider the four quotes. Explain each. What connects them? Explain which quote resonates most with you.
  • Patty Griffin’s ‘Up to the Mountain’ refers to the final speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave, the day before he was assassinated. Who is the speaker in the song? What is the peaceful valley she sings about? What is the mountain? What do the images reveal about Dr. King or the Civil Rights Movement? The text at the end of the video is an excerpt from that speech. If want students to watch an excerpt of that speech, YouTube has that, too.
  • Dudley Randall’s poem, ‘Ballad of Birmingham’, became the basis for the song, ‘Ballad of Birmingham’. Both recount the tale of a child whose mother refuses her request to go downtown to march. Instead, her mother sends her to church, believing she will be safer there, only to be killed by a bomb. The poem refers to the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in which four young ladies died. Dr. King delivered the eulogy at their funeral. Summarize for your classmates the story told in the poem and song. Which version did you prefer—song or poem?
  • Dr. King’s iconic speech, ‘We Shall Overcome’, incorporated the refrain of the Civil Rights song of the same title. For a closer look at the simple lyrics, view Pete Seeger’s version. Finally, fast forward to 0:50 for video of the crowd at the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, DC singing the song with Joan Baez. Why has this simple song become a lasting symbol of the Civil Rights Movement?

For many, Dr. King’s lasting legacy lies in acknowledging the continued work necessary to attain civil rights, and socio-economic and educational equality, and for us each to contribute toward the vision embodied in ‘I Have a Dream’.  For some, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not a day of remembrance, but a day of service. In observance of MLK Day of Service, individuals may partake in community service events across the United States on January 17, 2011.  Simply enter your zip code and view a list of local service opportunities. Challenge students to consider how they might serve their communities. What needs exist; what talents do they possess? As a final, independent reflection, ask students to share their thoughts on the day’s discussion: What images or songs resonated with them? Do they support a holiday for Dr. King? How do they think it is best observed? Has their understanding of the Civil Rights Movement or Dr. King changed?

In August, 2011, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial opens on the Mall in Washington, DC. (For a sneak peek, open the Washington Post article and slideshow.) His monument joins monuments honoring the crafter of the Declaration of Independence, and the Protector of the Union. Clearly there is something special about the man. Students deserve to understand why 50 states in the nation honor his leadership and ministry with a State holiday. By celebrating him we recognize the sacrifices and contributions of those who marched before, with, and after him. Students deserve to examine the road we have traveled and to look to the road ahead. How else will they choose the road less taken?

Rachel Cummings


Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.

§110.42. English I (One Credit).
(19) Viewing/representing/interpretation. The student understands and interprets visual representations.
(B)  analyze relationships, ideas, and cultures as represented in various media;





Martin Luther King, Jr Day of Service

New York Times

Time Magazine,8599,1872501,00.html

Washington Post

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