Teaching about Martin Luther King, Jr.: To What End?


By Beryle Banfield

As important as the ceremonial observance of Martin Luther King. Jr.’s birthday is, its real value lies in the opportunity it affords for reaffirmation and commitment to his principles of social justice and positive social change. This is especially important for those of us who share the responsibility for developing students’ understanding of the social forces that influenced Dr. Kings unswerving commitment to social justice.

Students need to become aware of King’s deep understanding of the nature of racism in the United States and the ways in which racism and other anti-humane values impact negatively upon our society and the world. They need to know also of King’s ability to make important historical connections and to predict the course of human events. (For example, almost 20 years ago, King was able to predict that U.S. policies would give rise to grave concern about Thailand, Cambodia, Mozambique and South Africa.) Most importantly, students need to understand social injustice today and develop the desire to secure justice by taking action to bring about positive social change. For this reason, it is hoped that King’s birthday celebration will serve as a springboard for the study of social justice issues throughout the school year.

King’s writings provide a basis for lessons which give students the opportunity to sense his larger dimensions, his sense of history, his decision-making skills, his moral strength and his uncompromising position on social justice issues.

The following outline for a teaching-learning unit is based on King’s writings and speeches. It may be developed for use with students from grades 4 through 12, in ever-increasing levels of sophistication as students move through the grades.


Teaching-Learning Unit Outline


Biographical materials on King for students (see p. 3). Teacher-prepared excerpts from King’s works or simplified versions.


What Manner of Man, a biography of King by Lerone Bennett Jr.
Stride Toward Freedom and Why We Can’t Wait by King, focusing on his ideas concerning racism, oppression, non-violence and direct social action to secure social justice.
"Letter from a Birmingham Jail"; "Beyond Vietnam" and "I’ve Been to the Mountain Top" by King, focusing on ideas listed above plus the connection King made between racism, militarism and poverty and his vision of a people-oriented society.

Prepare simplified versions of quotations from King’s works where necessary.



Students will be able to:
Restate in their own words King’s opinions concerning racism.
Identify ways in which racism is harmful to all peoples.
Express in their own words King’s views on direct social action.
State in their own words the connection between racism, poverty and militarism.
Identify steps to be taken in making a decision concerning social actions to be taken.


Students will demonstrate greater appreciation of:
King’s ability to make connections between historical cause and effect.
King’s willingness to take great personal risks to carry out social actions.
The need to engage in positive social action to achieve social justice.



Racism is the belief that one race is inherently superior to another and has the right to dominate and rule the race it claims is inferior.
Racism may be individual or institutional.
Racist attitudes are perpetuated and spread through textbooks, children’s literature and the media.
People of color have been the victim of oppressive racist practices.


All people have the right to life, liberty, and security of person.
All people should be equal before the law without distinctions of any kind.

Social Change

Positive social change can be brought about by the action of oppressed people and their allies.

Social Action

Social action involves informed decision-making.
Social action may involve taking personal risk.


Critical Thinking

Analyzing information and evaluating information.
Making inferences.
Drawing conclusions.

Decision Making

Defining a problem.
Selecting criteria for evaluating possible solutions.
Devising alternate solutions and making tentative decisions concerning actions.
Considering total situations and deciding on an action.
Monitoring ways in which the decisions are carried out.

Research Skills

Obtaining information from reference materials.
Using a variety of sources to obtain information.
Communication - making oral and written reports.

Social Action

Identifying a problem of social injustice.
Planning actions suitable for particular grade levels.



Dr. King on Racism

Present definition of racism (see above) to students. Develop concepts of individual racism (individual expressions of racist attitudes) and institutional racism (racism involving institutional structures provide students with information concerning the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision of 1896 and its effect: Jim Crow laws, segregation in schools, transportation, etc).

Based on their readings of biographical material about King, have students recall instances of racism that he experienced. Ask them to identify which incidents were examples of individual racism, which institutional.

Present Dr. King’s views on racism as follows: his feeling that for far "too long the depths of racism in American life has been underestimated," and that in order to completely remove it, it is important to "X-ray our history to learn the full extent of the disease" (from Why We Can’t Wait). Discuss the meaning of the statement with students. Ask them to consider why King felt that it was necessary to X-ray our history to learn the full extent of racism in the United States.

Have students identify the effects of racist practices that are still evident in our society today (poverty among people of color, inadequate medical care, unemployment, poor housing, inferior education, segregated education).

Discuss harmful effects of racist practices on those who are oppressed by racism and on the society as a whole.

Have students consider King’s views on the treatment of Native Americans/ indigenous peoples as expressed in Why We Can’t Wait.

Ask students to consider ways in which the Native Americans’ experiences and concerns are portrayed in our textbooks and tradebooks.

Have students identify ways in which these portrayals are biased against the Native peoples. Ask them to consider ways in which biased presentation of Native peoples can lead to acceptance of racist practices imposed on them.

Have students identify ways in which Native Americans have been victimized by institutional racism.

Related Activities

Have students research laws resulting from the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision and describe their continuing effect upon the lives of African Americans ("separate but equal" eating places/transportation facilities, segregated schools, etc).

Have students identify actions taken by King, African Americans and their allies to bring an end to these racist practices (bus boycotts, marches, freedom rides, sit-ins, voter registration drives).

Have students review textbooks and tradebooks for biased presentations of people of color.

Extension of Activities

Have students research other instances of institutional racism against people of color (Chinese Exclusion Acts, Japanese Internment Act).

Dr. King on Oppression

Discuss with students the following opinions King expressed in his writings.

a. When oppressed people willingly accept their oppression, they only serve to give their oppressors convenient justification for their acts (Stride Toward Freedom).

b. Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever; the yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. Freedom is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed ("Letter from a Birmingham Jail").

c. To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system (Stride Toward Freedom).

Have students identify ways in which King, African Americans and their allies refused to accept an unjust system.

Ask students to identify the obstacles that were placed in the way of those who refused to passively accept an unjust system (jail, high bail, beatings, loss of employment, expulsion from school, death).

Have students identify the gains that resulted from these activities.

Related Activities

Have students prepare an oral or written presentation showing how the activities of King, African Americans and their allies in the Civil Rights movement illustrated the validity of his opinions Dr. King on Social Action.

Discuss with students the following opinions held by King concerning nonviolent action.

The use of non-violent direct action was actually quite a sophisticated technique.

United States society had been long used to the idea of "violent retaliation against injustice."

Using moral force is more difficult and requires greater bravery than does using a physical force. (Why We Can’t Wait). Ask students to consider the preceding opinions in the light of the following statement: "The disenchanted, the disadvantaged, and the disinherited, seem at times of great crisis, to summon up some sort of genius that enables them to perceive and capture the appropriate weapons to carve out their destiny." (Why We Can’t Wait). Have students identify specific actions taken during the Civil Rights movement. Ask: In what ways were the weapons chosen in the Civil Rights movement appropriate? How did they demonstrate genius and creativity? How did they demonstrate the great moral force and physical bravery of the people taking part in the movement?

Related Activities

Present students with the four steps King recommends for considering and taking non-violent social action. The are collect facts to determine whether an injustice exists, negotiation, self-purification (removal of hostility, anger), and direct action ("Letter from a Birmingham Jail").

Have students consider each step and determine its importance.

Ask students to select one event in which the strategy of non-violent direct action was employed. Have them identify the point at which each of the four recommended steps was employed. Have them discuss results of the social action and assess its effectiveness.

Discuss with students the following opinions expressed by King concerning the war in Vietnam ("Beyond Vietnam").

How the poverty program of President Lyndon Johnson was destroyed when money was taken from this program to support the war in Vietnam.

Who was interested in working for Civil Rights should also work for peace.

Why were poor men, Black men, and Latino men were sent to the Vietnam War in disproportionately large numbers.

The need for our society to change from a "thing-oriented society" to "a people-oriented society." The choice that King saw for the country. The importance of working for world peace.

Related Activities

Have students consider the implications of this statement from King’s last speech. "I’ve Been to the Mountain Top."

"We have the opportunity to make America a better nation." Ask them to identify ways in which King thought America might be made better. (Refer also to "I Have a Dream").

Ask students to make three columns in their notebooks or on a separate piece of paper, heading each column with one of the three social ills King identified as being at the root of the Vietnam War (i.e., racism, poverty, militarism).

In each column have student list ways in which this particular issue was related to the Vietnam War - e.g., under racism, large numbers of Black soldiers; under poverty, cutting of programs to help poor people, under militarism, increase in military spending at expense of funds for education, health care, child care.

Ask students to research information on organizations working for the elimination of racism, poverty and militarism. Have students locate information on the activities of these groups from newspapers, magazines and organizational literature.

Have students develop an oral or written presentation based on King’s vision of a "people-oriented" society.

About the Author

BERYLE BANFIELD is a curriculum developer specializing in the area of African and African American history. Dr. Banfield is also president of the Council on Interracial Books for Children.