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Martin Luther King, Jr. found inspiration in Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago. A few decades after he was born, at age 32, he wrote an essay. It strongly influenced twentieth-century protest. “Civil Disobedience,” was first titled “Resistance to Civil Government.” More >

Lexile Levels: 600L 690L 930L 1170L


Discussion Questions

Grades 3-4: When you think something is unfair, how do you typically react? Does your behavior usually work? If so, why do you think it's effective? If not, what do you think might work better?
Grades 5-6: According to the article, Henry David Thoreau was very angry when he was released from jail. Do you think this was because the woman paid his taxes or because the jailer waited until morning to release him? Why?
Grades 7-8: A famous line in Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" is, "That government is best which governs least." Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?
Grades 9-10: Why do you think so many people, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi, were so influenced by Thoreau's ideas about non-violent protest? In what way, if any, have Thoreau's ideas inspired you?


Identify What Inspires Us
Students will identify a famous speech or short text that inspires them. They will write a short review in which they identify the author's message and explain how and why it inspires them.

Smithsonian Resources

One Life: Martin Luther King, Jr.
Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., non-violent protest became the defining feature of the modern civil rights movement in America. Explore this National Portrait Gallery exhibition to trace the trajectory of King’s career.
Civil Issues and Design
In this teacher-created lesson from the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, students use the design process to identify civil issues at their school (rights, responsibilities) and to propose solutions to those problems.
Comic Book Hero
In this lesson from the National Museum of American History, students look at pages from a 1960’s comic book about the civil rights movement and make a list of the “do’s” and “don’ts” of nonviolence in a handy “pocket card.”
Fighting for a New Nation
Use this lesson from the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum to guide students as they use the design process to develop a plan for civil solutions that might have averted the Revolutionary War.
Civil Disobedience
Use this collection from the Smithsonian Learning Lab to guide students as they explore the theme of civil disobedience. Items include texts from Sophocles, Shelley and Thoreau along with a variety of images.
Martin Luther King
Use the items in this collection of resources from the Smithsonian Learning Lab to teach students about the key events in the life and work of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.