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. Many places have schools or other buildings named for 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 Martin Luther King Jr.  The District of Columbia central library building is also named for Martin Luther King. Walk inside and you can see a unique tribute to the civil rights leader. Noted artist Don Miller created a mural documenting the life of Dr. King, 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.

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When I’ve asked my students, “Would anyone be interested in a trip on a ferry?” they’ve all cheered with excitement. But I wonder how many of us would be brave enough to take a night voyage through an ice-clogged river on a boat battered by snow and high winds. Primary sources from the Library of Congress can let students explore this momentous–and shivery–event.