More than a Dream: Using King’s Legacy to Foster Civil Responsibility In Students

Posted by Rashawnda Atkinson on Jan 13, 2017 11:55:00 AM

non-violence-1158317_1920.jpgIn just a few days our nation will celebrate Martin Luther King Day, which recognizes the contributions that famed Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. made to advancing racial equality through non-violent means.  Since 1986, the third Monday in every January people take part in various activities--speeches, marches, community service projects, or visiting sites that highlight King's life and legacy.  As educators seeking to create independent, conscious thinkers, how can we get them to use their words and knowledge to affect change in their schools?  As King wrote as a junior at Morehouse College, “...Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction" (as cited in The Seattle Times, n.d.).  I'll share with you some ways to get your students and school to maximize the day's significance.

  • Research the history of MLK Day.  Although now celebrated across the nation as a federally recognized holiday, this was not the case.  Have students research how the movement for the day began, the challenges it faced, and the circumstances that helped it pass into law in 1986.  Track how long it took for states to adopt the day and write an article highlighting the major stages of development from beginning to present-day events.
  • Host a Rally for Change.  In addition to having students do traditional activities such as memorizing his well-known speeches and participating in plays or oratory contests, find a cause that the school and community support--such as a daily recess or community gardens--and have a few volunteers to speak in support (or against) the issue at hand.  Alternatively, students can use this opportunity to show ways we've united across racial lines by showing respect for people no matter their ethnicity or nationality.
  • Establish partnerships with community organizations.  Schools can work with local food banks to make sure people in need have adequate food to eat.  Donate outfits, socks, or baby goods to a shelter.  Empower families to promote healthy reading habits by collecting books for families with limited funds.  Invite volunteers to mentor students or tutor children needing more support academically.
  • Encourage kids to get involved politically.  They're never too young to voice their views on issues that matter to them.  From the mayor or local representative to the President of the United States, students can write letters or visit them to learn more about the process and to express their desires to make their schools and communities better.  Organize tours to visit the lawmakers and then see if you can spend time speaking with them--if they aren't in session at the time.
  • Research and analyze his contemporaries.  In addition to those known to work along with King--like Jesse Jackson, Sr. and Ralph Abernathy, get students to learn more about others fighting for racial equality [i.e. James Farmer, Congressman John Lewis, and Roy Wilkins].  Compare their views and the views of the organizations they represented with Dr. King.  What's the same?  What's different?.  Students may be surprised to know that some leaders of the Civil Rights Movement disagreed with King and his philosophy.  Then have students debate whether King's philosophy was effective in producing lasting change in our country.  Check out Big Universe's library to see what we have to offer as you begin this research journey.

By engaging students in real-life application of the principles Dr. King and others emulated through their words as well as their deeds, we indeed build the character of the student as educators and not just the intellect, as King admonishes (as cited in The Seattle Times, n.d.).  May this Martin Luther King Day be one where your class, school, or district elevates this opportunity of teaching children civic responsibility in a successful, lasting way. 

I'd love to hear how your class or school commemorates Martin Luther King Day.  Please share below!


The Seattle Times. (n.d.). The purpose of education: Morehouse College, 1948. Retrieved from

Topics: Classroom Ideas, Reading Lists, Writing, Literacy

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