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Happy Birthday, MLK!

Just in time to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday -- activities across the grades for learning about the life of the famous civil rights leader!


Where was the tactic of the sit-in protest first used?

a. At a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, NC

b. At a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas

c. On a bus in Birmingham, Alabama

d. On a march in Selma, Alabama 

Where did Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech?

a. At Ebenezer Baptist Church

b. In front of the Atlanta City Hall

c. At the Lincoln Memorial

d. At the Nobel Prize ceremony 

What year was the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday first observed?

a. 1969

b. 1973

c. 1980

d. 1986 

Why was King arrested in 1956?

a. Protesting segregated department store facilities in Birmingham

b. Driving too fast

c. Sitting in at a Woolworth's lunch counter

d. Assaulting a police officer

These are four of the questions on the Test Your Knowledge Quiz that is part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Web pages created by the Seattle Times. Why not use the quiz as the culmination of your students study of Dr. King? Let students take the self-correcting online quiz when your study unit is completed. Or try another tactic -- use the quiz as a starting point! Provide the questions and have your students work individually or in small groups to locate the answers using library or online resources.

The Seattle Times' King pages are among the best online resources related to the famous civil rights leader. Those pages include a timeline of King's life and the civil rights struggle. You'll also find a photo tour of the civil rights movement, which includes images of Rosa Parks on the bus in Montgomery, students being escorted to school in Little Rock, "freedom riders" at a newly integrated lunch counter, and many others. In addition, several Times essays about King appear on the site. And you'll find a cyber-conversation about King between two classes of third graders -- one class in Kent, Washington, and the other in Birmingham, Alabama. A special page related to the Martin Luther King Day holiday includes a timeline of events that led to the creation of the holiday. The site includes links to lots of other King related information on the Internet as well as a study guide for teachers and students.

While the Seattle Times provides one of the best online King collections, that site is by no means the only resource! You'll find all kinds of King-related Internet resources for students across the grades. Here's a sampling:

  • Check out the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project from Stanford University. The site includes a biography, a timeline, articles about Dr. King, and the text of some of his well-known papers. Among those papers are his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and a letter he wrote while being held in a Birmingham jail.
  • On the Internet, you can find the text of Dr. King's famous "I have a dream..." speech. You can also listen to a few moving "I have a dream" audio segments if your computer is audio-equipped. And be sure to see a review of a children's book, I Have a Dream. This beautiful new book includes the full text of King's famous speech.
  • Life magazine offers a dozen MLK Jr. Classic Images including a 1958 photo of Dr. King being arrested for "loitering" and being manhandled by Montgomery, Alabama police; a 1960 photo of King leading a demonstration for a strong civil rights plank in GOP campaign platform; a 1963 image of him addressing civil rights demonstrators at the March on Washington; and a 1965 photo of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.


Looking for bio or timeline info?

January 15, 1929   Martin Luther King Jr. is born.
September, 1935   Martin Luther King begins school at the all-black Yonge Street Elementary School in Atlanta.
February, 1948   Martin Luther King is ordained as a Baptist minister.
December 1, 1955   Mrs. Rosa Parks refuses to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama.
January, 1957   The Southern Christian Leadership Conference is founded. Dr. King is chosen president.
January, 1960   The King family moves to Atlanta, where Martin Luther King becomes co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church with his father, Martin Luther King, Sr.
December, 1964   Martin Luther King receives the Nobel Peace Prize.

Those are just a few of the important events in the life of Martin Luther Jr. -- a few of the events that the students in Room 100 at Buckman School (Portland, Oregon) learned about when they read a book about Dr. King's life written by Faith Ringgold. After reading the book, the first, second, and third grade students went to work creating a Martin Luther King Jr. Timeline page for their school's Web site. The timeline depicts more than 35 events in King's life that the students learned about.

And your students can do the same thing!

Your timeline, of course, might not be created on the Web. And depending on the grade you teach, the timeline you create might be more or less sophisticated than the one created by the Buckman students.

Tons of resources -- both on and off the Internet -- are available for students to use in putting together a timeline. For starters, check out some simple biographies of the man. The library is full of them, written for all ages. And several good ones can be found on the Internet.

  • The Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project offers a brief King Biography.

You can find a number of good timelines on the Net. Check out the following:

And no timeline is complete without photos. Some famous images of Dr. King can be found online. Print them out and place them at the appropriate places on your timeline. Invite students to illustrate important events for which images can't be found. Among the best photo sources we have found are the following:
Martin Luther King Photo Essays

You might select additional photos for student use from these two additional sources. (You might not want to give your young students free access to these sources because they are unfiltered.)
Pictures of Martin Luther King
Google Image Search: Martin Luther King, Jr.



Citizenship/role playing. This common activity is used in classrooms everywhere -- but it's one worth repeating from time to time! The activity helps students understand the concept of "discrimination." For this activity, divide the class into two or more groups. Some teachers divide students by eye or hair color; some invite students to select and wear badges of different colors (purple, green, and other colors that are not related to skin color); and others isolate students whose first names begin with the letter "b," (or whichever letter is the most common first letter of students' names in the class). For a class period or for an entire school day, one group of students (for example, the kids who have blond hair, those wearing orange badges, or the ones whose names start with "b") are favored above all others. Those students receive special treats or special privileges, and they are complimented often. Students who aren't in the "favored" group, on the other hand, are ignored, left out of discussions, and otherwise discriminated against. At the end of the period, students discuss their feelings. How did it feel to be treated unfairly, to be discriminated against? Invite students to talk about times when they felt they were judged or treated unfairly. How does this "experiment" relate to the life of Martin Luther King Jr.? (Source: Kidsphere listserv)

Read aloud. Read aloud one of many Martin Luther King Jr. biographies to motivate interest in creating a timeline of his life. Your school and local libraries are sure to have several to choose from. Select a handful of the most important events from the book to start your timeline. Let students fill in other events as they use other books and online resources to learn more. Teachers at the lower grades might focus on books that emphasize a "getting along" theme -- books such as The Land of Many Colors by the Klamath County YMCA (Scholastic, 1993), Together by George Ella Lyon (Orchard Paperbacks), and The Berenstain Bears and the New Neighbor (about the bears' fears when a panda family moves in next door).

Geography. On a U.S. map highlight places of importance in the life of Martin Luther King. Place a pushpin at each location and extend a strand of yarn from the pin to a card at the edge of the map. On the card explain the importance of that place.

History/role playing. Make a list of events that are included on your Martin Luther King timeline (e.g., Rosa Parks' bus ride, integrating Little Rock's schools, a lunch counter protest, the "I have a dream" speech). Let students work in groups to write short plays in which each group acts out one of the events.

Writing. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream..." speech is one of the most famous and often quoted speeches of all time. Read the speech aloud. Invite students to listen to the speech. Write on a chart some of the "dreams" that Martin Luther King expressed in it. Ask students to think about the things they dream for themselves, their families, their country, and the world, and to express those dreams in their own "I have a dream" essays. (See a review of a beautiful children's book from Scholastic, I Have a Dream.)

Multiculturalism. A simple class or school project can demonstrate the beauty of diversity! Martin Luther King's dream was to see people of all countries, races, and religions living together in harmony. Gather seeds of different kinds and invite each student to plant a variety of seeds in an egg carton. The seeds of different shapes, sizes, and colors will sprout side by side. Once the plants are large enough, transplant them into a large pot in the classroom or in a small garden outside. Each class in the school might do the project on its own, culminating in the creation of a beautiful and colorful (and diverse!) schoolwide garden. Source: Richard Ellenburg, Orlando, Florida -- Learning magazine, January 1994.

More geography. On March 21, 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. led a march from Selma to Montgomery (Alabama) to focus attention on black voter registration in Selma. More than 3,000 people began the march; by the time the marchers arrived at the state capitol in Montgomery, their ranks had swelled to 25,000! Five months later, President Lyndon Johnson would sign into law the Voting Rights Bill. The march started at Browns Chapel in Selma, crossed the Edmund Petras Bridge, and headed down route 80 to Montgomery. On a map invite students to find the route the march traveled and to figure out approximately how many miles many of the marchers walked.

Music. Discuss with students the meaning of the words to the song We Shall Overcome in light of Martin Luther King's life and the civil rights movement. If possible, play a recording of the song. In addition, you might be able to track down a copy of "We Shall Overcome," a PBS documentary that chronicles the history of this famous civil rights hymn.

Classifying/creating a chart. (Upper elementary/middle/high school.) In what ways did the civil rights movement change the lives of African Americans? Research key events in the movement. Invite students to complete a chart that describes the problem that led to each event and what improvements were brought about as a result of the event.

Poetry. Invite students to write poems about Martin Luther King. Read Standing Tall, a poem about Dr. King by Jamieson McKenzie, from the online magazine From Now On.

Discussion. (Follow the Discussion Web format for this activity.) After learning about the life of Martin Luther King, invite students (first individually, then in pairs, then in small groups) to think about and to respond to the question Why, do you think, do many people look upon Martin Luther King Jr. as a "true American hero"? Then pull the entire class back together and let each group share one idea that came out of its discussion. OPTION: Provide a different question for each team. Invite them to research and prepare a report that answers the question. Possible questions: Who was Mohandas Gandhi? How did he influence Martin Luther King Jr.? or Dr. King led the fight against laws that were unfair to black people. What were some of the laws and situations that King wanted to change? For additional discussion questions, refer to the Study Guide of the Seattle Times Martin Luther King Jr. pages.

Related Resources

  • "This Is Like That Martin Luther King Guy" by Barbara James Thomson, Young Children, January 1993. Describes a hands-on activity designed to help young children begin to understand the feelings of people who are discriminated against. Provides a detailed description of the small group discussion that follows the exercise, a discussion that is considered to be essential to the activity.
  • "They Won't Let Me Play With Them!" (An article by William Kreidler, from Instructor magazine.) "They won't let me play with them!" How many times have you heard your students say that? In a caring, peaceable classroom, no one should feel like an outsider. But despite our best intentions, many children do. While there is no magic cure for the persistent problems related to exclusion, there are ways to address them with your students. Here's how to set standards and expectations, and how to follow up on them throughout the school year. Includes activities, strategies, and books that can be used to address the issue.
  • "Books About Martin Luther King Jr." by Christina B. Woll, Social Studies and the Young Learner, January-February 1990.
  • Check out the text of Robert F. Kennedy's speech on Martin Luther King Jr.'s death.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2010 Education World


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