Dr. King's Legacy and Choosing to Participate | Facing History & Ourselves
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands at a microphone giving a speech to a crowd.

Dr. King's Legacy and Choosing to Participate

Students analyze Martin Luther King Jr.'s final speech and consider how they can respond to King's challenge to create a more just world.  


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




Three or more 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About This Lesson

In this lesson, students will examine the final speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. Commonly referred to as the “mountaintop speech,” it highlights many issues, such as unity, injustice, economic security, and our obligation to one another, that continue to confront our communities, nation, and world today. After reading and annotating the speech, students will deepen their understanding of the text by illustrating and summarizing Dr. King’s main ideas and imagery. They will then respond to the speech by using excerpts to create a class poem. Finally, students will apply ideas drawn from their personal reflections, Dr. King’s speech, and his legacy to consider how they might “choose to participate” in creating of a more just community, nation, or world.

  • What is your vision for the kind of world in which you would like to live?
  • What responsibility do you have for bringing about that kind of world?
  • Students will express in a storyboard the main ideas in Dr. Martin Luther King’s “mountaintop” speech  and apply them in discussion about the ways human respond in the face of injustice.
  • Students will reflect on their visions for the kind of world in which they would like to live and discuss how two historians’ perspectives shape their understanding of personal responsibility and opportunity for enacting change.

This lesson is designed to fit into three or more 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 5 activities
  • 1 handout
  • 1 video
  • 1 reading 
  • 1 extension

The final months of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and the immediate aftermath of his assassination marked an intensification of the nonviolent struggle on two fronts: fighting poverty and ending the Vietnam War. For Dr. King, these two issues became inseparable.

By 1967, the United States was deeply entrenched in the Vietnam War. Invoking the fear of communist expansion and the threat it posed to democracy, President Lyndon B. Johnson increased the number of US troops in Vietnam. In response, some civil rights leaders charged that President Johnson’s domestic “war on poverty” was falling victim to US war efforts abroad. Dr. King struggled with an internal dilemma about finding a proper way to publicly denounce America’s involvement in Vietnam. In a speech delivered on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York, King told the gathered clergy that it was “time to break the silence” on Vietnam. Drawing connections between the resources spent on the war and the rampant poverty in America, Dr. King warned that the objectives of the movement were undermined by the use of force abroad. Many of Dr. King’s allies criticized his stance; they argued that it would split the movement and weaken its support base. President Johnson, who supported civil rights, saw Dr. King’s public stance on Vietnam as a personal betrayal. 

In addition to the nonviolent struggle to protest the Vietnam War, Dr. King also led efforts to end poverty. The Poor People’s Campaign was the first national economic campaign led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Building on their experiences in Chicago and other cities, the SCLC embarked on a drive designed to highlight the consequences of entrenched poverty. The organization planned a multiracial campaign which would adapt nonviolence to the struggle for economic equality in America. For Dr. King, the Poor People’s Campaign was a bridge between civil rights and economics. The campaign was to end in a massive demonstration of solidarity in Washington, D.C. 

While organizing the campaign, Dr. King received a call from his friend Reverend James Lawson, the man who had organized the trainings in nonviolence in Nashville during the sit-ins. Lawson invited Dr. King to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of a black sanitation workers’ strike. Dr. King, believing the strike would highlight the link between race and poverty, accepted the invitation. On March 18, 1968, Dr. King delivered a speech to a crowd of seventeen thousand; ten days later he led protestors in a march through the city. For the first time, however, one of Dr. King’s marches descended into violence. Disturbed, he flew back home, but vowed to return and lead a nonviolent march in Memphis. 

Two weeks later, Dr. King was back in Memphis. On April 3, 1968, the evening before his assassination, he delivered his passionate and prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis at the Mason Temple Church in which he encouraged the crowd to stay unified and maintain its focus on the issue of injustice and not focus on the violence that the media highlighted in its reporting of the strike. The next day, during a meeting with Andrew Young, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and other SCLC leaders at the Lorraine Motel, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., stepped out onto his balcony. Seconds later he was hit by a sniper’s bullet; he died an hour later at a nearby hospital. The country was in shock: America had lost its most public voice of moral conscience. Disbelief quickly became fury, and on April 5, riots broke out in more than sixty cities across the US. For several days fires raged, leaving behind a desolate urban landscape of burnt cars, broken storefronts, and scorched buildings.

Struggling to regroup after Dr. King’s death, the SCLC made the final arrangements for the Poor People’s Campaign. Five weeks after Dr. King’s assassination, thousands of protestors—the majority of them black—arrived in Washington, DC. There, in makeshift sheds and tents and in drenching rain, they built Resurrection City on the Mall, the site of the March on Washington five years earlier. In early June, the movement suffered yet another blow when Senator Robert F. Kennedy—considered a close ally of the freedom movement—was assassinated shortly after winning the California Democratic presidential primary elections. On June 24, 1968, with Kennedy and Dr. King gone, a saddened and confused nation watched police and public authorities raze Resurrection City.

Although a tragic loss to the movement, it is important for students to understand that social movements are rarely embodied in just one individual and that history is not always linear. As historian Timothy McCarthy notes, “For us to understand the forces of history that move history, we need to be open to the possibility that history doesn’t move in neat line or forward progression. And that is particularly true when we are talking about freedom, equality and progress.” In the final activity of this lesson, students will place themselves within these forces of history by reflecting on their vision for the world and how they might “choose to participate” in order to strengthen their communities, nation, and world.


Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

Before reading Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech with your students, preview the text to see which, if any, biblical allusions, historical references, or vocabulary terms, such as the Good Samaritan, Levite, Pharaoh, or injunction, you might need to pre-teach in order for your students to understand the text.

In the video Writing History’s Next Chapter that is used in this lesson, scholars Timothy McCarthy and George Lipsitz discuss the connection between our responsibilities in the world today and two historical eras: the civil rights movement of the 20th century and the Reconstruction era of the 19th century. Students might not know much about the Reconstruction Era, which lasted roughly from 1865 to 1877. Consider sharing these basic facts about the era with students before showing the video:

  • During Reconstruction, the United States debated—and often fought violently over—the rights and freedoms to which four million Black Americans who had been freed from slavery were entitled after the Civil War.
  • For a brief time, many states in the South achieved interracial democracy in which thousands of Black Americans held political office. Several African Americans were elected to Congress in Washington, and one state (South Carolina) had a Black majority state legislature for a few years.
  • In the 1870s, a violent backlash by white supremacists reversed much of the progress that had been made towards interracial democracy during the era, but civil rights laws and three constitutional amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th) survived and provided the legal framework for the civil rights movement of the 20th century. For this reason, some historians have referred to the movement as “the second Reconstruction.”

Depending on the length of your class periods and time spent discussing the texts, there are options for dividing this lesson over two or three class periods. For a three-period lesson, you could focus on the journal and close reading of Dr. King’s Mountaintop Speech on the first day and then have students interact more closely with the text on the second day by completing their storyboards, which they might start for homework, and closing with the second Extension, a lifted line poem. That would leave the third day for “choosing to participate” and provide your students with the time and space to reflect on Dr. King’s message and apply it to their own lives and visions for the world. If you only have two class periods for this lesson, you might choose a Read Aloud strategy rather than the close reading protocol so students spend a day and a half with the reading and the final half of the second lesson connecting the material to their own lives.

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Lesson Plans


  • Tell students that in this lesson they will read Dr. Martin Luther King’s final speech entitled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” which he delivered to an audience in Memphis on the evening before his assassination. In this speech, Dr. King imagines reasons why people might choose between helping and not helping someone when they observe something that seems unjust or unfair.
  • Before reading the speech, ask students reflect in their journals on the choice between helping or not helping in the face of an injustice. Tell them that they will not be asked to share their responses: Write about a time when you observed something you thought was unjust or unfair, and you were not sure how to respond. What did you think and feel? What did you do?
  • Remind students that they don’t need to share what they wrote in their journals. Ask them to help you make a list on the board or chart paper of why they think people feel unsure about how to respond when they observe something that they think is unfair or unjust. You might develop this idea by also asking students to consider why people might choose to take action, choose not to take action, and feel unsure about how to respond.
  • Tell students that they will be reading Dr. Martin Luther King’s final speech, which he delivered on April 3, 1968, at the Memphis Mason Temple Church on the evening before his assassination. Dr. King was in Memphis to lend his voice and support to the sanitation workers’ strike, which started on February 12, 1968, when about 1,000 of the city’s 1,100 sanitation workers began to strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition.
  • Pass out the reading King’s Mountaintop Speech (pp. 155-157) from Eyes on the Prize Study Guide. If you are using the close reading protocol, after you read the speech out loud, ask your students to read it a second time to themselves, adding annotations in the margins. You might ask students to mark places in the speech where Dr. King talks about why people don’t always respond to injustice so they can draw connections between their earlier journal responses and the text.

Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech contains vivid imagery, biblical allusions, and historical references. To help foster your students’ understanding of the text, consider the Storyboard strategy, where they sketch the main idea or an image for each paragraph and then either write a summary or select an important quotation to write in the space provided on the handout. Consider having students work with a partner or in small groups for this activity.

  • First, ask students to number the paragraphs 1–9 of the speech.
  • Pass out the Storyboard Template handout and tell students what they should draw and write for each paragraph on the handout. Time allowing, students can share their storyboards in a Gallery Walk and then discuss their observations before moving to the class discussion of the speech.
  • Lead the students in a class discussion of the speech:
    • How did creating your storyboard help you understand Dr. King’s speech in a new, different, or deeper way?
    • How did Dr. King justify his decision to violate the federal injunction against the planned demonstrations? What democratic traditions did he cite in defence of civil disobedience?
    • What did Dr. King mean by “a dangerous unselfishness” in paragraph 7 of his speech? What did he try to teach his audience about empathy through the story of the Good Samaritan? What does he mean by the Good Samaritan’s ability to project the “I” into the “thou”?
    • What do you think it takes to see a situation from someone else’s perspective? What advice might Dr. King give you about deciding how to respond when you observe something that you think is unjust or unfair? Cite examples from the text in your response.

In his mountaintop speech, Dr. King challenges his audience by declaring, “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” For this final activity, students will take on Dr. King’s challenge by sharing their vision for the world and considering what responsibility and opportunity they might have to bring about that vision.

  • After providing historical context for Reconstruction if needed (see Notes to Teacher), watch the video Writing History’s Next Chapter one or two times. Consider using the Two-Column Note-Taking strategy. Students can take notes during the video in the left-hand column and then add their questions, interpretations, and connections in the right-hand column. If you don’t have time to show the video twice, you might pause it at minute 2:18 to allow students time respond to Timothy McCarthy’s ideas about history and revolution before viewing the second portion featuring George Lipsitz discussing social change and responsibility.
  • Debrief the video and the students’ reactions in small groups or in a class discussion.
  • Now ask students to respond to two of the following questions in their journals. Let them know that they will be discussing their responses as a class. Consider using the Fishbowl strategy so every student has the opportunity both to participate and hear others’ voices in this final discussion.
    • What is your vision for the kind of world in which you would like to live?
    • What responsibility do you have for bringing about that kind of world?
    • Respond to George Lipsitz’s final question: “How are you going to write the new chapter, not in your notebooks, but in society as men and women with responsibility and opportunity?”

To assess your students understanding of this lesson’s content and to capture their thinking, ask them to complete a 3-2-1 Exit Ticket in which they reflect on the following three questions:

  • What are three ideas from Dr. King’s Mountaintop Speech and/or the video Writing History’s Next Chapter that you hope to remember?
  • What are two questions that the speech, video, journal prompts, or class discussions raise for you?
  • What one word best describes the kind of world you would like to live in?

Extension Activities

The Lifted Line Poem teaching strategy is a creative way for students to engage with a text in a collaborative way after they have read and discussed it as a class. If you have time after discussing King’s Mountaintop Speech, consider this strategy as one more way that your students can interact with the text in a way that is intellectually engaging, community building, and creative.

  • Tell students that they will be working together to create a lifted line poem in which they will each select a meaningful line from King’ mountaintop speech and then work together to create a poem from those lines.
  • Instruct students to review the speech, select one line that is most meaningful, important, or revealing to them and mark it with a star or underline it.
  • If you have time, you might ask students to write an explanation in their journals for why they lifted the line they chose.
  • When everyone has selected a line, ask the students to stand and form a circle. Next, pick one student to begin and a direction (clockwise or counter-clockwise). Each student should read his or her line in succession in the direction you've picked. Tell students that it doesn’t matter if more than one person shares the same line.
  • Discuss with students any patterns they noticed in the lines they chose.
    • Were any lines repeated by multiple students? Why did those repeated lines resonate with multiple students?
    • What ideas seemed most meaningful and important to the class? What ideas were not represented in the lifted line poem?
    • How does the class’ lifted line poem extend or challenging their thinking about the text?

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