Unfinished Business: Symbolism & MLK

Last January, we shared six unique events and activities to use with students in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in “A Day On, Not a Day Off.” To build off of that post, here are four evergreen activities your students can do in honor of Dr. King’s legacy, using symbolism.


If you’ve visited the MLK Memorial before, you might’ve noticed some of the symbols built into the site: Dr. King’s figure, a “Stone of Hope” cut out from a “Mountain of Despair;” a wall of quotes reflecting his ideals; and the memorial’s placement near the site of The March on Washington. Most interesting to me, though, is that his statue was carved without feet.

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Why? To remind us that, like his statue’s body, Dr. King’s work remains unfinished.

Engage your students in this ongoing work for equality with the following activities; they focus on Dr. King and incorporate symbolism. You can use them to help your students reflect on Dr. King’s legacy and begin making their own real world connections!

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  1. MLK Memorial

(This year, MLK Day will be on January 21st. Dr. King’s memorial is the obvious place to visit in DC, so we suggest doing any activities here before or after that weekend and Monday.)

Have your students begun talking about Dr. King already?

Once on site, start by reviewing the content about Dr. King you’ve discussed so far and have students explore the full memorial, gathering observations. When you all come back together, have students share their observations. Based on what they saw, what did they recall about Dr. King? Did they discover any new information about Dr. King? What objects or symbols did they identify in their exploration?

If no student brings it up, identify the missing feet on his statue. Have students think about why Dr. King’s feet were important to his work and share why they think the sculptor left them off.

(Photography) Activity:

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Take one of the following types of photos:
      1) each student’s shoes placed at the bottom of the memorial
      2) each student standing next to the memorial, but crop out the student’s feet

Reflecting on Dr. King’s unfinished business, students can use their photos to write or discuss how they can continue his work.

  1. The National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery’s second floor is currently home to their “Struggle for Justice” exhibit. The exhibit “showcases the determined men and women—from key nineteenth-century historical figures to contemporary leaders—who struggled to achieve civil rights for disenfranchised or marginalized groups.” The various people featured in this exhibit’s work are similar or directly connected to Dr. King’s.

First, locate Dr. King’s portrait (shown above) in the exhibit; then have students discuss its context and meaning. Where is Dr. King? What do they think he’s doing? Why is he there?

(Discussion) Activity:

Explore at least three other portraits and their descriptions with students and examine them to see how they connect with what they’ve identified in Dr. King’s. Have students discuss:

    • What’s happening in the other portraits
    • How they are similar to and different from Dr. King’s
    • What clues in the portraits help students know what cause(s) the subject(s) are fighting for

(Art) Activity:

Have students reflect on what they know about Dr. King and his work, and what kinds of objects he used to help him in his work (e.g. microphone, bible). On a blank piece of paper, have students write down “Martin Luther King” and draw some of the objects they identified.

Next, have students repeat this activity on the other side of their paper with a different portrait in the exhibit based on the portrait itself and its description. Afterwards, students can share what objects they drew and why with a partner (someone who had a different portrait) and/or in a whole group.

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  1. The Lincoln Memorial Steps

Embedded on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is the “I Have a Dream” plaque where Dr. King delivered his speech. The speech brought national awareness to the Civil Rights Movement. Start by discussing the importance of this speech with students: Why did he give the speech? Why in DC? What happened as a result?

(Photography) Activity:

The “I Have a Dream” speech speaks to change in people’s behaviors, attitudes, and treatment towards one another. After covering this point, students can work in small groups and think of ways they can show a positive attitude or behavior (e.g. lending a classmate a pencil, helping someone up who fell, or following a classroom rule).

Using a camera, help students stage and take “before” and “after” photos of their idea. For example, a “before” photo could be a student who is raising their hand. The “after” photo could be that student answering a question. Use the photos as classroom decoration, for a collage, or in a different project.

Be sure to share your students’ creations with us! We’d love to see how the photos of your experiences, videotaped discussions, and final products turn out!

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