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For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: Exploring Photographs of Civil Rights Movement Leaders

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Mayor Wagner greets Dr. & Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr. at City Hall
Mayor Wagner greets Dr. & Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr. at City Hall

As Martin Luther King, Jr. Day approaches, students have the opportunity to explore not only the life and legacy of Dr. King, but also the work of the many civil rights leaders at the forefront of the freedom movements of the 20th century.

Images from the online collections of the Library of Congress can pique students’ interest in the leaders and other figures who appear in those photographs. A close analysis of these images can also inspire research questions about the movement and the many people who participated.

Bayard Rustin, Andrew Young, Rep. William Fitts Ryan, James Farmer, and John Lewis
Bayard Rustin, Andrew Young, Rep. William Fitts Ryan, James Farmer, and John Lewis

To get started, select a photograph or a set of photographs. You can search for specific people, such as Coretta Scott King, Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, or Andrew Young,  or choose from one of the lists compiled by Library staff — several are included in the additional resources below.

Model how to analyze a photograph with the whole class, as needed. Assign or allow groups of students to choose one or more additional images to study and analyze. Print or use the online primary source analysis tool to record observations, reflections and questions about the picture.

Negro demonstration in Washington, D.C. Justice Dept. Bobby Kennedy speaking to crowd
Demonstration in Washington, D.C. Justice Dept. Bobby Kennedy speaking to crowd

Identify questions from the Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Photographs & Prints to guide and deepen your students’ interaction with the image. Can they identify any of the people in the image? What does reading the caption add to their understanding? What questions do they have? Even students who are comfortable with analyzing photographs may need help developing questions for further investigation. Find suggestions for helping them develop questions in the blog post Primary Source Analysis Tool: What’s Next? Further Investigation.

Assign or allow students to choose a person from the photographs to research. They may share their results with the class in brief oral presentations, blog posts, posters, songs, or other written or performed products.

Leave a comment to let us know what they discover!

Additional resources and image lists:




Comments (7)

  1. thx martin lurther king jr. 4 make whites and blackes and any color person get along

  2. I like this idea of a primary source to help students see images and be able to analyze what they are looking at. Allowing students to get a different perspective on key events in history is a great way to expand their critical thinking skills. I enjoyed the fact that the Library of Congress has more civil rights leaders than just Martin Luther King Jr. pictures to look at as it gives less known leaders a chance to be studied.

  3. I make a point of identifying Civil Rights leaders in addition to MLK. Students need to realize that the movement was a large group of people, of all races, that helped create the changes.

  4. I like to idea of using photographs to spark the students’ interests. I can imagine using these ideas in the future to begin a writing assignment. The students could choose a photograph, research the background, and then write as if they were that person.

  5. We’d be interested in hearing how your students react to these images.

  6. There is a wonderful video “My Friend Martin”. It combines real footage with animation and a fun music track. It’s very powerful and also shows what might have been without MLK…great for all ages.

  7. The treatment and the subjugation of African Americans is egregious, to say the least, but America DOES offer other ways to make us and America a better place. Instead of clinging to the past, we need to move on, educate ourselves. Drugs, guns, and killing your next door neighbor because he allegedly “dis” you, is ” off the chain and has NO bling for a good life! There are other ways to have a lot of “bling”, besides us killing our own brothers and sisters! Nasty porn videos showing the degradation of women is equally egregious! And the program “Gangland” should be yanked from TV! We ALL have the same color blood, same DNA, same aspirations for are loved ones, we live and die the same way, laugh and love the same way, we are one human family on this “pale blue dot” (Carl Sagan) and this is ALL WE HAVE!

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