Educator Resources

Martin Luther King, Jr., and Memphis Sanitation Workers

Teaching Activities

Standards Correlations

This lesson correlates to the National History Standards.

  • Era 9 -Postwar United States (1945-early 1970s)
    • Standard 4A -Demonstrate understanding of the Second Reconstruction and its advancement of civil rights.

This lesson correlates to the National Standards for Civics and Government.

  • Standard III.D.2. -Evaluate, take, and defend positions on current issues regarding the judicial protection of individual rights.
  • Standard V.E.1. -Evaluate, take, and defend positions on the relationship between politics and the attainment of individual and public goals.

Constitutional Connection

This lesson relates to two clauses in the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, which ensure Americans the right to assemble peaceably and to petition the government for the redress of grievances. In very broad terms this lesson also relates to the Preamble of the Constitution, which lists to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, . . . promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity" among the purposes of the union.

Cross-curricular Connections

Share these activities with your colleagues who teach language arts and American studies.

Analyzing the Document

  1. Direct students to read about the civil rights movement in their textbooks, and share with them information about the Memphis sanitation workers' strike from the Historical Background section of this lesson. Make photocopies of Documents 1 and 2, and distribute them to students. Using questions from the Document Analysis Worksheet, lead the class in examining the flyers. Make sure that students understand the vocabulary used in the documents; the distinction between a strike (an action by workers) and a boycott (an action by consumers) is important.

Class Discussion

  1. The organizers of COME (Community on the Move for Equality) suggest several actions as components of a boycott. Direct students to compile a complete list from Documents 1 and 2. Ask students how the religious beliefs of Memphis residents might affect their support of the boycott. Ask which of the suggested actions students think would be most effective. Direct them to list three choices in order of effectiveness and to give reasons for their choices.


  1. The city of Memphis went to court for an injunction to prevent the march planned for April 5. Lead students in brainstorming a defense. What arguments might the organizers and leaders submit in defense of their actions? Suggest that students examine Documents 1 and 2 for advice the COME organizers might give to ensure the boycott and march are conducted in a nonviolent manner. Ask what principles of nonviolent direct action had been operative in the boycott and march.

Document Analysis

  1. Distribute copies of Document 3 to students. Using questions from the Document Analysis Worksheet, lead the class in examining the defendants' affidavit. Discuss the main points the defendants make in answer to the charges brought against them. Do these defense arguments differ from the arguments students predicted in Activity 3?

Constitutional Connection

  1. Direct students to examine Document 3 and to determine if there is evidence that the constitutional rights of the defendants were in jeopardy. Ask each student to present an opinion in a paragraph or a short essay.

Creative Expression

  1. Lead a whole-class discussion of how nonviolent direct action can be a powerful tool for bringing about social, economic, or political change. Direct each student to identify a cause or issue in today's society that would be advanced by the methods of nonviolent direct action and to write a song or poem expressing hope and support for that cause. Ask volunteers to share their creations. Some students might prefer to work in pairs. As an alternative, direct students to design an aesthetically pleasing flyer or poster for a nonviolent event supporting a cause. Display the artwork in the classroom.

Dramatic Reading

  1. Direct two students to locate a copy of the last speech of Martin Luther King, Jr., which he delivered at the Bishop Charles J. Mason Temple in Memphis on the night of April 3, 1968. Ask them to prepare a dramatic reading of selections from the speech and to present it in front of the class. The speech is available as "I See the Promised Land," chapter 45 of the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. ; as "Unfulfilled Dreams," chapter 32 of King's Autobiography ; and as "I've Been to the Mountaintop" on-line at the King Papers Collection at Stanford University.

Imaginary Dialogues

  1. Assign three pairs of students to research the philosophies of civil disobedience, nonviolence, and passive resistance developed by Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, and Mohandas Gandhi. Ask them to present their findings to the class by composing and performing imaginary dialogues between Martin Luther King, Jr., and each of these thinkers.

Extension Research

  1. Identify high points in the civil rights movement closely associated with Martin Luther King, Jr. Examples include the Montgomery bus boycott, the Birmingham campaign, the freedom rides, the March on Washington, the Selma march, and the Chicago campaign. (Additional events might also be selected.) Divide the class into small groups of five (or more) students and assign one student in each group one of the selected high points.

    Direct students to use library and Internet resources to research the event. Researchers should focus particularly on the similarities and differences between the circumstances and King's role in the assigned event and in the Memphis sanitation workers' strike. Allow students to present their findings orally to their small groups.

  2. Instruct students to use library and Internet resources to research the Poor People's Campaign before and after King's death. Direct students to present their findings informally in a whole-class discussion. Ask students to evaluate the short-term and long-term effects of King's assassination.

The documents included in this project are from the Record Group 21, Records of the United States District Court, Western District of Tennessee, Western (Memphis) Division. They are available online through the National Archives Catalog National Archives Identifiers:


The National Archives Catalog replaces its prototypes, the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) and NARA Archival Information Locator (NAIL). You can still perform a keyword, digitized image and location search. The online catalog's advanced functionalities also allow you to search by organization, person, or topic.

The online catalog is a searchable database that contains information about a wide variety of NARA holdings across the country. You can use the National Archives Catalog to search record descriptions by keywords or topics and retrieve digital copies of selected textual documents, photographs, maps, and sound recordings related to thousands of topics.

Currently, about 80% of NARA's vast holdings have been described in the National Archives Catalog. Thousands of digital images can be searched in the National Archives Catalog. In keeping with NARA's Strategic Plan, the percentage of holdings described in the National Archives Catalog will grow continually.

The portrait of Dr. King is by Artist Betsy G. Reyneau, and is from Record Group 200, Donated Collections.

This article was written by Douglas Perry, a teacher at Gig Harbor High School in Gig Harbor, WA.

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