Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Let Freedom Ring: The Life & Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Created September 28, 2010


The Lesson


Let Freedom Ring: Photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Credit: courtesy of the National Archives

Visualize the historic moment of Martin Luther King's stirring "I Have a Dream" speech through text and photographs. See the crowds, hear the words, and let King's powerful imagery awaken your students' thirst for justice in the world today.

In this lesson, students will learn about the life and work of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Students will listen to a brief biography, view photographs of the March on Washington, and read a portion of King's "I Have a Dream" speech. After studying King's use of imagery and allusion, students will create original poetic phrases about freedom and illustrate them with symbols representing the forms of freedom that have yet to be realized in the United States.

Guiding Questions

  • Who was Martin Luther King, Jr., and how did he fight for civil rights?
  • What images and ideas did he draw upon in crafting his "I Have a Dream" speech?
  • What parts of Dr. King's dream have or have not been realized in the present day?

Learning Objectives

  • Learn about the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Observe and study King's use of figurative language in his "I Have a Dream" speech
  • Become aware of inequities that still exist in the United States


For background information on the topics included in this lesson, see the resource list at the bottom of this lesson plan. Information is also available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project website.

Preparation Instructions

Before the lesson, explore what students already know about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Divide the class into groups of 3–4 students each. Have each group create a "bubble map" with Dr. King's name in the center bubble; in smaller bubbles around the center, have them write words and phrases that they associate with Dr. King. After the groups have completed their maps, go around the room round-robin style, asking one member from each group to call out a word or phrase from his or her group's map. Compile a master list of the students' ideas on the board.

Next, read the class a brief biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. A summary of the major events of King's life can be found on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project website. You may print this document out and read it to the class.

After you have shared this biographical information with the class, ask students what they now know about Martin Luther King, Jr. that they didn't know before. Add this new information to the master list.

Explain to students what the March on Washington was. Tell them that its full title was the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," that it was held on August 28, 1963, and that thousands of Americans from all walks of life attended it. Let students know that although Dr. King emphasized the struggles of African-Americans, he devoted his life to the freedom of all Americans. As long as even one of us was not free, he believed, none of us could be truly free.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. View photographs of the march

In order to gain a sense of the magnitude and power of the march, as well as the wide diversity of Americans who attended it, students may view photographs from the extensive collection available through the EDSITEment-reviewed National Archives website. To access these images go to Docs Teach page of the National Archives, and type in "March on Washington" into the search box.  

If you have limited computer access in your classroom, you may want to print out some photographs to distribute to students. To make a copy, click on the desired photograph and hold your cursor down until a list of options appears. After selecting "Copy this image," you may post the image into a word-processing document and print it out as you would any other document. You may also wish to share pictures from some of the print resources listed at the bottom of this lesson plan.

As they view the photographs, ask students to take special note of the variety of people represented. What do they think motivated each of these people to attend the March?

Activity 2. Read the speech

Ask students if they have ever heard Dr, King's "I Have a Dream" speech, which he delivered at the March on Washington. Now have students read the final section of Dr. King's speech, the full text of which is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project website. After accessing the speech from the opening page of the website, scroll down to the final section of the speech, beginning with the words, "I say to you today, my friends [applause], so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream…" (In classes without Internet hook-up, teachers may print out the final section of the speech and distribute it to students. To facilitate students' understanding, the teacher might also choose to read the excerpts from the speech aloud to the class.)

After students have read and/or listened to the speech, ask them to write down 5-7 words or phrases of the speech that especially stood out to them. Then divide the class into groups of three students each. To emphasize the poetry and beauty of King's language, have each group create a "found poem" by combining into the form of a poem, in whatever order they wish, the words and phrases that were selected by each of the group's members. Upon completion, have one member of each group read the group's "found poem" to the rest of the class.

Activity 3. Let freedom ring!

Now turn to "My Country 'Tis of Thee" to show how Dr. King drew upon the language of this familiar song in crafting his own speech (much as the students drew upon the language of Dr. King's speech in crafting their "found poems"). Read or have students join you in singing the lyrics of the song:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrims' pride,
From every mountainside.
Let freedom ring!

Take note not only of how Dr. King quoted these lyrics directly in his speech, but also of how he alluded to the phrase "from every mountainside" with phrases such as "the red hills of Georgia," "the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire," "the mighty mountains of New York," and "the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania." Ask students to read out the other phrases about mountains that Dr. King included in the final section of his speech.

For further inspiration, you may wish to have students consider the words of "America the Beautiful," the poetic grandeur of which are also reflected in King's use of language:

Oh beautiful, for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountains' majesty
Above the fruited plain.
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee.
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.

Activity 4. Geographical locations

Next, have students make a list of the geographical locations mentioned in Dr. King's speech, and have them find these locations on a United States map. A large selection of maps is available in the "Atlas" section of the EDSITEment-reviewed National Geographic Society Xpeditions website. In the Atlas section, go to North America and click on "United States" for a current map of the United States.

Ask students to take note of the specific geographical features of different regions, and then have them create new phrases that King might have used to refer to other states ("Let freedom ring from…"). In selecting places to represent on their posters, students might wish to consider some of the locations where other notable struggles for freedom have taken place (e.g., Plymouth Rock, Lexington and Concord, Philadelphia, Appomattox, Seneca Falls, Wounded Knee, Selma). Have each student write his or her phrase at the top of a sheet of poster paper.

Activity 5. Persistent inequities

Discuss with students some of the inequities that persist in American society today. (Students might note, for instance, inequities based on skin color, ethnicity, language, socioeconomic status, or gender.) Has Dr. King's dream been realized, or is it yet to come true? Which forms of inequality would King protest if he were alive today?

Finally, have each student create a symbol representing a form of freedom that has yet to be realized in America, and add this symbol to his or her poster beneath the phrase he or she created in Step 5. These posters may become part of a bulletin board or classroom display with the title "Let Freedom Ring!"

Extending The Lesson

With adequate computer access and appropriate software, students can create electronic versions of the "Let Freedom Ring!" assignment. After completion of the lesson, have students access individual state maps, available through the Atlas of North America feature of Xpeditions, and locate the sites of notable struggles for freedom (e.g., Plymouth Rock, Lexington and Concord, Philadelphia, Appomattox, Seneca Falls, Wounded Knee, Selma). After conducting web searches for information pertaining to these events, students may create a virtual tour of these "sites of freedom" in a word-processed document containing "live" URL links to relevant web pages and maps.

Students may also wish to visit the EDSITEment-reviewed website We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement, which provides information about people and events connected to historic sites throughout the nation.

The Basics

Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Using primary sources