4 Important Topics You Need To Teach About Martin Luther King, Jr

It’s that time of year when people start posting their favorite Martin Luther King, Jr quotes. They’re always the same, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. or “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Yes, these are excellent quotes. But when we teach about Martin Luther King, Jr, we need to go further than these quotes.

4 important facts your need to teach your students about Martin Luther King, jr.

But, they don’t go far enough in giving the full picture of what Martin Luther King, Jr stood for. Also, we all know that most people did a quick Google search. They needed to find these quotes so they could sound “woke” or post out of obligation on Martin Luther King, Day. Or, they saw someone else post the quote and it inspired them to post it too.

Am I being cynical? Maybe.

But it’s also the harsh reality of what happens on these types of holidays. There’s an outpouring of love and support for a person that a majority of people wouldn’t have supported in his day.

We teach our students about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, The March on Washington, and Selma. But did you know the Montgomery Bus Boycott was not King’s idea and he was reluctant to lead it in the beginning? (Thank goodness he came around!)

Also, King believed there were Three Evils in the world: racism, poverty, and the Vietnam War. Do you we talk about this when we teach about Martin Luther King? Unfortunately, we do his legacy a disservice when we teach about his fight against racism. And stop there.

Did you know that at the time of his death, Martin Luther King Jr. had a DISAPPROVAL rating of 75%? Yup. You read that right. 75%. That’s more than President Donald Trump after the attempted coup on January 6th, 2021. (Wouldn’t this statistic be an interesting hook for your students?!).

So we need to be honest with ourselves. Would we have been part of the 25% of people who approved of Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968?

The answer’s obvious. No, we wouldn’t. 

Now, this information might be new to you (I’m guessing it is). It might not be. Either way, when we teach about Martin Luther King, Jr., we need to tell the full story. Yes, he was an incredible civil rights leader who did tremendous things for society. Yes, he was extremely popular. For a while.

But, it’s important to remember that, although we revere him today, many people didn’t when he was alive. And I’m not talking about White people. Black people also disapproved of him.

We need to teach our students this. We also need to teach them that what he fought for went far beyond ending racial segregation. He fought for the rights of all people. And it got him killed.

We must go beyond the facts about Martin Luther King, jr that we always teach our students.

Here are four topics you need to teach your students about Martin Luther King, Jr. And ideas for teaching about them:

(Consider this your ultimate Martin Luther King Day teaching resource!)

1. Martin Luther King & The Vietnam War

Ok, so what did it? What pushed people over the edge? We all know that white supremacists always hated Martin Luther King, Jr.

Some of us know that many Black folks disagreed with his methods.

But what was the final straw?

It was the Vietnam War.

In hindsight, King’s stance on the Vietnam War makes complete sense. He was against it.

His anti-Vietnam War position went beyond nonviolence.

(I admire him most for his unwavering commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience. Whether I 100% agree with him or not).

King was against the Vietnam War.

  • He believed there was a common link between civil rights and peace movements.
  • He thought fighting for democracy in another country wasn’t justified. Not when people at home were denied those same rights.
  • He also took issue with White and Black young men fighting side-by-side in Vietnam. Yet they couldn’t sit together at home. 
  • Lastly, he argued that the money spent on war took funds away from programs to help alleviate poverty.

These viewpoint are what helped create the backlash against King. But more on that later.

So, do you talk about any of this with your students? I know, I sure don’t. But that will change the next time I teach U.S. History.

In my U.S. History classes, I talk about Hawks vs. Doves when I teach about the Vietnam War. I know, I know, we all do. But do we all teach about Martin Luther King’s position on Vietnam? I doubt it.

But, we need to.

How to teach 4 important topics about Martin Luther King, jr.

Why not add Martin Luther King’s Vietnam Speech? (More on that below).

Here are some ideas to help you teach about Martin Luther King, Jr when you’re teaching about the Vietnam War.

  1. Speech Analysis:
    • When we think of Martin Luther King, Jr’s speeches, the first one that comes to mind is “I Have a Dream.”
      • (Click here for a free lesson plan that compares and contrasts MLK’s “I Have a Dream to Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grassroots.”) And rightfully so. It’s incredible.
    • However, he has tons of fantastic speeches. One of them is Beyond Vietnam.  You could have your students listen to audio and follow along with the script. Some of the things I like to look at when I have students analyze speeches are ethos, pathos, logos, tone, and message. I also have the students choose the lines that stand out to them the most. They also note what they agree with and disagree with.
  2. Compare and contrast:
    • I  like comparing and contrasting political leaders. Especially Black political leaders. Our society loves to lump Black people together. And thinks that all Black folks believe the same things. It’s another example of not seeing Black people as complex humans. For this idea, you could have the kids compare and contrast King’s ideas vs. other civil rights leaders at the time. Several civil rights leaders didn’t want King to discuss his anti-Vietnam War viewpoints.
    • You could also compare his viewpoints to the Hawks’ viewpoints. I always like to ask the kids whether they think they would have been a hawk or a dove. I’m often surprised to find where the kids land on that question.

Here are some other resources you can use to help you develop your lessons (some are also linked above):

2. Martin Luther King’s Views On Poverty

Another issue that King cared about that doesn’t get enough play is poverty. Now, I get it. The 1960s are so jam-packed with stuff to teach about that it’s impossible to teach everything. But, it’s important to talk about King’s stance on poverty, even if it’s briefly. Martin Luther King, Jr was killed when he went to Memphis, TN. He was there to support the creation of a Sanitation Workers’ union. This is often overlooked when talking about his assassination. Ending poverty was important to him.

Alleviating poverty was one of the reasons he was against the Vietnam War. Again, he believed that the money spent on the war effort took funds away from poverty relief efforts. Such as President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

But, it took it even further. I’ve seen a lot of posts about the Three Evils. But I’m willing to bet they don’t know his plans to end poverty.

Today, people would cry “socialism!” They did in the 60s too. King believed in a guaranteed income. He thought that the government’s plan to tackle poverty one issue at a time was too slow and ineffective. The only way to end poverty was to give each American a middle-class income.

Dr. King knew that civil rights and economic opportunities were inextricably linked. The article, Who Is Continuing Martin Luther King’s Fight Against Poverty? brings up the point that this reality is often overlooked. And I see where the author is coming from. I question it when people say they are socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Often, civil rights and poverty go hand-in-hand.

The other major thing you need to teach your students is the Poor People’s Campaign. Its goal was to provide jobs, housing, and a decent standard of living to all Americans. Dr. King had planned another March on Washington that would showcase the economic issues plaguing Americans. Also, we must remember. The March on Washington in 1963 was called “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” It’s funny we fail to discuss the “jobs” part.

Here are a couple of ideas for how to teach about Martin Luther King and his plans to end poverty:

  1. Compare and contrast his economic ideas to current economic plans. It could be interesting to compare his plan for guaranteed income to Andrew Yang’s plan for universal income. Also,  compare plans from other Democrat and Republican politicians.
  2. Students could debate whether there should be a universal income or not. I love debates. They give students tons of information in a short amount of time. And they help improve students’ argument skills. I love to make kids argue the side they disagree with (if I have that figured out) because
    • It’s fun
    • It forces them to use evidence, not their opinion. So, they learn more.

Here are some other resources you can use to help you develop your lessons (some are also linked above):

3. Backlash Against Martin Luther King, Jr.

Discussing the backlash that Martin Luther King, Jr faced isn’t a critique on him as much as it’s a critique on society. As I said earlier. Today most people revere Martin Luther King, and love to post his quotes on Martin Luther King Day. But, we must consider that he was not as popular as we are taught in school.

And it wasn’t just ardent white supremacists who hated him. There were plenty of civil rights activists and liberal Whites who disagreed with him too.

Though for different reasons.

Let’s start with the Black folks who didn’t like King.

Although King faced backlash, he was very popular, especially in the beginning. People could get on board with his Christian viewpoint. And his steadfast commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience. Especially in the South.

The boycotts worked. The sit-ins worked. The “fill the jails” strategy worked. Until they didn’t.

Activists like Malcolm X didn’t believe in nonviolent resistance. He believed that Black people need to get their rights by “any means necessary” and if that meant violence, so be it.

Malcolm X didn’t believe in integration (at least not until he went on the hajj. He came back from Mecca with different viewpoints).

Also, he was a Black Nationalist. He believed that Black people should be separate from white people. But not in the way Whites designed it. He wanted Black people to be economically independent of Whites.

Lastly, Malcolm X was part of the Nation of Islam, so the whole Christian, turn-the-other-cheek thing didn’t vibe with him.

Towards the end of the 1960s, other Black leaders began to branch away from the King’s ideology. They saw that King’s strategies weren’t working like they used to.

Stokely Carmichael is an example. Though respectful of King, Carmichael outwardly stated that he did not believe in nonviolence. If someone was going to attack him, he would attack back.

The late 1960s saw the emergence of the Black Power movement, and the Black Panther Party. Movements that stood in stark contrast King’s belief in nonviolent civil disobedience.

Again, other civil rights leaders disagreed with King’s anti-Vietnam War stance. Many of them thought that King would ruin everything they’ve worked so hard to achieve. They were right. This was the beginning of the end of much of the support that King experienced in his career.

Ok, so when did liberal Whites start to turn on King?

The first step was his anti-Vietnam War stance. Not even just his stance, the fact that he made public speeches denouncing the war. President Johnson was so pissed that he cut off all contact with King.

The next step was when King took his civil rights campaign to the North. We Northerners love to pretend we aren’t racist, and Northern liberals in the 1960s were no different. Until someone brings up the idea of integrating Northern suburbs. That was the final straw. I mean, is it much different than today?

martin luther king quote

In the summer of 2020, President Trump played on this type of racism. He warned suburban housewives that if Joe Biden became president, the suburbs would be overrun by poor Black and Brown people. We have a history of legally keeping Black and Brown people out of the suburbs. A history that we don’t teach our students.

When King went to Cicero, IL (a suburb of Chicago) all hell broke loose. And it shocked King. He described these White Northerners as “more hateful” than anything he’d ever seen, “even in Mississippi or Alabama.”

There’s a fantastic clip from CNN’s the Sixties that shows all this (minus the Anti-Vietnam War stuff). It’s my favorite clip that I show my students. Of all the clips I show. (In general, I prefer to show clips from Eyes on the Prize when I teach about the Civil Rights Movement. This episode isn’t long enough to do the job I want it to. But the last 10 minutes are unreal good. Like, get ready to learn something and you might even need a tissue, good).

Here are some other resources you can use to help you develop your lessons (some are also linked above):

4. Compare & Contrast King to his contemporaries.

It’s important to compare and contrast civil rights leaders when you teach about Martin Luther King. This is my favorite thing to do when I’m teaching about the Civil Rights Movement. Especially in my civics classes. I love it so much that I will write a blog post about how I teach about the Civil Rights Movement in my civics classes soon.

Most of us were taught about civil disobedience. And we continue to teach that narrative. The main people we remember are Martin Luther King, Jr and Rosa Parks. I’ve always argued that the reason we revere them is because of their position of nonviolence. America loves it when Black people turn the other cheek and don’t fight back even when attacked. And although nonviolence is an idea and strategy to be lauded, it wasn’t (and isn’t) supported by all Black people.

Many of King’s contemporaries, most notably Malcolm X, considered him to be an “Uncle Tom.” And didn’t support his nonviolent approach.

We must show the complex nature of the Civil Rights Movement. Not everyone was singing kumbaya and in 100% agreement with each other. They didn’t even have the same goals. I always have my students consider who they actually agree with. And I let them know that it’s ok not to agree with King. I’m not sure I would if I were alive in the 1950s and 1960s.

Although there are others, I like to compare Martin Luther King to Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Each person/group had different goals and different ideas about how to reach those goals. (I often throw Stokely Carmichael in there too). It’s interesting to see who the kids agree with and why.

After having the kids analyze Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grassroots” to King’s “I Have a Dream,” one of my most conservative students told me that “Message to the Grassroots” resonated with him more. Wow. I was shocked.

Here are some ways I’ve taught this and I idea for how I’d like to teach it in the future:

  1. I’ve already mentioned this, but CNN’s The Sixties: Episode – Long March to Freedom (last 10 mins of the episode) is incredible. I show this before I start talking about the Black Panthers.
  2. I show the entire movie, Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington. It’s incredible. If you haven’t seen it. Watch it. NOW. How Denzel Washington didn’t receive an Oscar for his performance baffles me.
  3. In the future, I’d like to do a Pinwheel activity where three groups represent a different civil rights leader. Then, the kids have a discussion as though they are that person.


I hope this post gives you a more enough information to teach about Martin Luther King, Jr in a more well-rounded way.

He deserves it.

I’ve always known the sacrifices he made for his country. I mean, come on. He was assassinated when he was 39 years old. I’m about to turn 37. It blows my mind how much he accomplished and the impact he made on history in those 39 short years.

It’s our duty as social justice educators and social studies teachers to make sure we tell his story in a way the shows all he stood for. The thing that impresses me the most about Martin Luther King, Jr is that he never gave up. He never wavered in what he believed in. Whether I agree with him or not, he fought for nonviolence in every aspect of our society. Even when 75% of the country, including the President of the United States, turned against him.

He deserves for our students to learn that.

Did you get your FREE lesson? Click here for a free lesson plan that compares and contrasts MLK’s “I Have a Dream to Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grassroots.”

comments +

  1. Emily says:


    All of your posts are so insightful. The amount of resources and ideas you packed in this post alone is amazing. I am grateful for your guidance and the plethora of resources you provide teachers. You make a difference. Thank you .

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