Why We Turn Our Thoughts to Martin Luther King Jr.

His life and teachings are as relevant as they ever were

“Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King / and recognize that there are ties between us, all men and women living on the Earth. / Ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood, that we are bound together / in our desire to see the world become a place in which our children can grow free and strong. / We are bound together by the task that stands before us and the road that lies ahead. / We are bound and we are bound.” – From James Taylor’s song, “Shed a Little Light” on his “New Moon Shine” album from 1991.

Martin Luther King Jr.

LENOIR, N.C. – A few years ago at this time, as we gathered with friends (remember that?), one of the folks in the group – a fifth grade teacher – shared that she had a white student ask her why we bother celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday. Her answer, which she shared with us, was masterful. In short, she said what James Taylor wrote in the song referenced above, though in her own words. Knowing her as I do, I know her point was made.

When I was teaching in a high school that had approximately 1,400 students, only one of which was black (until he transferred because of relentless bullying), I was often asked the same question. In response, I decided to develop a lesson plan that would enlighten the 15-year-old students I was teaching. The plan was consistent with the topic of “Great Ideas” which we were studying in the literature we were reading, from Leo Tolstoy to Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech.

That young people continue to ask this question is disturbing, but not surprising. It is the culture in which they are being raised. Today, throughout Western North Carolina (and beyond) scores of businesses, churches and nonprofits owned or run by whites ignore the holiday, requiring their workers to clock in. To its credit, the Caldwell County School System does observe the federal holiday.

Still, too often, the implicit message is clear: Dr. King’s life does not matter. Therefore, we should not be surprised, that 38 years after the federal holiday was signed into law by President Reagan – yes President Reagan! – that there is a movement called Black Lives Matter.

Hence, it seems appropriate to review some key points of the lesson plan I used almost two decades ago. Parts of it follow. Perhaps it will help you understand or explain why we celebrate the life of Dr. King.

Overview: An exploration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Goals: To have students recognize and explore the literary theme of “Great Ideas”; to expose students to effective methods of argument and speech making; and, write an essay in response acknowledging the importance developing positive character traits in their own lives.

Materials/resources: Assorted newspaper clippings, video of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and James Taylor’s song, “Shed A Little Light.”

Pre-activities: Writing prompt: Respond to the following quote by author Harper Lee: “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” What does this mean, do you agree with it, and can you think of an instance from your own life or the life of someone you know when this view was faced?


Ask students the following questions for discussion:

  1. Do you know why we were out of school yesterday?
  2. Who was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? What do you know about him?
  3. What are your thoughts and feelings about him and the commemoration of his life through a national holiday?
  4. Do you believe there are “Grand Ideas” to which all people should adhere? Give some examples.

Listen to James Taylor’s song, “Shed a Little Light,” which opens with the line, “Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King…”

Watch a brief documentary about the Civil Rights Movement that includes the entire “I have a Dream” speech. Also, read it.

Discuss Dr. King’s remark, “I have come to the conclusion that the ultimate measure of a man is not where he finds himself in moments of convenience, but where he finds himself in moments of challenge and moments of controversy.” What does this mean? How do we see this comment evidenced in Dr. King’s life?

Put list of the Caldwell County Schools character traits on the overhead and ask students to identify the traits they think Dr. King most exemplified. Explain why.

Have students write a brief essay (1-2 pages) explaining how they will develop and demonstrate that trait in their own lives.


This lesson plan led to robust discussions. That is because teenagers generally have a better BS meter than most adults. In short, they recognized the truth of Dr. King’s teachings.

As we consider the incivility which dominates our national discourse, and as find ourselves having to fight back against the lies perpetrated by the previous president and his enabler Republicans regarding the failed coup attempt last January 6, our domestic peace and security is quite fragile. Voting rights are under attack in a 21st Century version of Jim Crow tactics. The many strides made in healthcare and environmental protection made over the past half century are at risk of being abandoned. We clearly find ourselves “in moments of challenge and controversy.” How we respond – with kindness and hope, or hate and fear – is the ultimate measure of a person, as Dr. King taught.

That is why we turn out thoughts to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, and why I thank God for teachers like my young friend. For majority-white Appalachia, Dr. King’s life may seem unworthy of celebration. That’s a shame. Because, as James Taylor sings, “ … there are ties between us, all men and women living on the Earth.”

© Michael M. Barrick, 2001-2022. March photo by History in HD on Unsplash


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