Honoring Our History through Artwork: Martin Luther King, Jr. in Library of Congress Primary Sources

Mural at Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, District of Columbia Public Library

January and February have a number of memorial holidays, but special days aren’t the only way communities celebrate their heroes.

Are there statues in your community created to honor those who have made a difference? Have buildings in your town been named or renamed for important people in history? Do you know of streets named for notable people? What can a memorial–a place, a building, a work of art–tell us about the individual, the community, and the memorial’s creators?

In many cities in the United States you will find a street named for Martin Luther King, Jr. Many places have schools or other buildings named for Dr. King. Washington, D.C., is no exception. The nation’s capital is home to the national King Memorial and we have a major street named for King.  The District of Columbia central library building also bears his name. Walk inside and you can see a unique tribute to the civil rights leader. Noted artist Don Miller created a mural documenting King’s life, as seen here in a photograph from the Carol M. Highsmith Archive at the Library of Congress.

Details from the King mural, District of Columbia Public Library

Your students may:

  • Study the mural and record observations, reflections and questions on the primary source analysis tool. Ask them to identify any other people that they recognize. What other kinds of images did Miller include in the mural? Why do they think the artist used these particular images? What specific theme or story is presented by the mural? What images would they want to add or take away and why? For additional questions to focus and deepen their thinking, see the teacher’s guide Analyzing Photographs and Prints.
  • Create their own murals about someone in history. What images would they use and why?
  • Think of other ways that we honor important figures in history. What other suggestions do they have of ways to honor important people in history?

Leave a comment telling us about the creative ideas your students had about memorials past, present, and future.


  1. Amy W.
    January 4, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    I really liked this post. Memorials are often passed without a glance or with little recognition from many students (and people). I know of an elementary and a special education high school teacher who taught lessons where students study 9/11 memorials and Lincoln memorials to begin their discussion about this topic. Classroom activities to help students build an understanding of memorials and an appreciation of who, why, and how the creator chose to memorialize a person (groups of people, or place) can be an intersting investigation for all who pursue it. I liked the distinction of how some memorials can share a story (mural, online memorial) while others may be more singular in nature to share an image of a person (statue, plaque, structure).

    How interesting it would be to study how a person or event is memorialized over time and how the dedication may be similar or different depending on who created it, commissioned it, while considering the values, and beliefs of the creator or of a particular time. I was instantly curious to know more about Don Miller and when he created the mural!

  2. Tiffany Wright
    November 1, 2015 at 3:03 pm

    I love these murals. Wish I could see it in person.

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