Martin Luther King, Jr.

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 12594

Have you ever had a big dream? Maybe a dream that you would change the world some day? Dr. King had such a dream, and he did change the world for many people. It also cost him dearly! Hear his words!


People and Their Environment, United States

Social Studies
learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Who is considered the greatest civil rights leader of the mid-1900s?

Watch “The Story of Martin Luther King Jr. by Kid President” to find out!

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  • You have probably heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but did you know he was one of the most important leaders of modern American history?

As you saw by watching the video, Dr. King was a peaceful and strong leader who fought for racial equality. In this lesson, you will learn more about the life and legacy of this important historical figure.

As you complete this section, take notes on the major events and accomplishments of Dr. King’s life.

Early life

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. His grandfather was the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Dr. King’s father took over the church when his grandfather passed away in 1931. Dr. King was expected to take over the church when his father passed away.

  • How do you think Dr. King’s religious upbringing played a role in his decisions and actions later in life?

map of Georgia

As a boy, Dr. King excelled academically. During the 1930s, public schools were racially segregated. That meant that all the white children attended different schools from the black children. Dr. King attended a segregated school for black people and graduated high school at the age of 15.

After high school, Dr. King earned multiple college degrees. He earned a degree in sociology (the study of human society) from Morehouse College in 1948. Then, he earned a degree in theology, or religion, from Crozer Theological Seminary, and a doctorate from Boston University. He was only 25 years old when he completed his doctoral degree.

While attending Crozer Theological Seminary, he was voted class president and was named valedictorian, meaning he had the best grades of the all the students in his class. Many historians say it is remarkable that Dr. King was elected class president because he was one of only a few African American students in the class during a time of extreme racial segregation.

  • What does this tell you about Dr. King’s personality?

While working on his doctoral degree, Dr. King met and married his wife, Coretta Scott King. They eventually had four children. After completing his studies, Dr. King and his family moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where he became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. 

Dr. and Mrs. King

Image by Herman Hiller, via Wikimedia Commons, has no known copyright restrictions.

The start of a career as a civil rights leader

The Civil Rights Movement was an effort during the mid-1900s to end racial segregation and discrimination. While living in Montgomery, Dr. King became involved with the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama.

He first caught the attention of the nation during the Montgomery Bus Boycott that started in 1955. A boycott is when a group of people refuse to partake of or participate in something.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Image by Dick DeMarsico, via Wikimedia Commons, has no known copyright restrictions.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott began when Rosa Parks, a young African American woman, refused to give her bus seat to a white man. At the time, there were different sections on buses for whites and African Americans. If a bus was full, the African Americans were expected to give the seats in their section to the white people.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, she was arrested.

The following picture shows Rosa Parks being arrested. Think of a time you have been forced to give something up even though you had it first.

  • How did you feel in that moment?

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted

Image from the Associated Press, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Civil rights leaders decided to call a massive boycott of the Montgomery transit system, and they asked Dr. King to lead the movement. For more than a year, African Americans refused to ride the city buses, causing the Montgomery transit system to lose a lot of money.

The boycott made many people angry because it caused a huge loss in money and forced people in Montgomery to reconsider their way of life.

As the leader of the movement, Dr. King was often threatened. He was arrested at one point and his home was bombed. Despite the threats, Dr. King did not give up.

After more than a year of protesting, the boycott was lifted when the city of Montgomery desegregated public transportation. Dr. King’s leadership helped make the Montgomery bus boycott a success, but there was still a great deal of work to do throughout the country.

  • Do you think the outcome of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was worth the threats Dr. King experienced?

The leading civil rights leader

As the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King became the face of the Civil Rights Movement. After the boycott, he began working throughout the southern states to end segregation in all aspects of American life.

Dr. King was known for protesting segregation with civil disobedience, which is when someone protests something he or she believes to be morally wrong using peaceful measures. He strongly disagreed with violence and riots. Rather, he fought segregation by leading peaceful marches and giving uplifting speeches.

March on Washington 8/28/1963

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

One of Dr. King’s most memorable protests was when he led a march through Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital city, in 1963. More than 250,000 people went to Washington, D.C., to participate in the March for Jobs and Freedom. There, people walked past the U.S. Capitol building and the White House, waving signs that called on congressional leaders to provide all people with equal rights.

The march ended on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. King gave his most famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In his speech, Dr. King described a vision for an America where people of every race could live and work peaceably together.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

You will now watch Dr. King’s famous speech. As you watch, make a list of any memorable words or phrases you hear. You can stop and rewind the video at any time to take notes or think about the meaning of what you hear.

Watch Martin Luther King, Jr. I Have A Dream Speech:

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When you are finished watching the video, reflect on the following questions:

  • Why has the “I Have a Dream” speech become one of the most famous speeches in American history?
  • What was the main idea of Dr. King’s speech?
  • Do you think this speech inspired people to take part in the Civil Rights Movement?
  • Do you believe his words had the power to change people's minds about segregation?

Major successes

In addition to the desegregation of the Montgomery transit system, Dr. King’s work brought about other significant changes to the American way of life.

After the March for Jobs and Freedom, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed in favor of racial equality because it desegregated public places, including schools, and made it illegal to hire someone for a job on the basis of skin color.

Dr. King’s work and “I Have a Dream” speech are credited as being some of the leading factors that led to the Civil Rights Act being passed.

In the mid-1900s, there were several voting laws and requirements, particularly in the South, that made it almost impossible for African Americans to vote in political elections.

In March of 1965, Dr. King led a series of 54-mile marches from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, advocating for voting rights for people of all colors. The attention raised by these marches caused Congress to take action, and during that same year, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act that eliminated any laws and restrictions that kept African Americans from voting.

 March on Washington 8/28/1963

Image by Rowland Scherman, via Wikimedia Commons, is made available under the CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Dr. King received many awards for the work he did throughout his life. Most notably, he received the Nobel Peace Prize, an international award given to only a few people who make serious efforts towards establishing and maintaining world peace.

  • Of all Dr. King’s accomplishments, which do you think had the greatest impact on history?
  • How do you think Dr. King’s work impacted the world?

A life cut short

Sadly, America will never know what other changes may have been possible under the guidance of Dr. King.

Many people, particularly in the South, did not like Dr. King. They did not like his ideas and viewed him as a threat to the lives they had become accustomed to. On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was shot and killed while standing on the balcony of his hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was only 39 years old.

After his death, riots took place in more than 100 cities throughout the United States.

  • Based on what you know about Dr. King’s views, do you think he would have been okay with people rioting over his death?

It took police about two months to track down and find the man who murdered Dr. King. In 1969, James Earl Ray pled guilty to killing Dr. King. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of the most influential leaders of modern American history. In fact, some have gone as far as to summarize his life work with this well-known golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

  • What does this phrase mean?
  • How do you practice this in your own life?
  • Can you think of another phrase you could use to summarize Dr. King and his work?

When you are ready, move on to the Got It? section to complete an activity and examine a timeline of Dr. King’s life.

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