Using Graphic Novels in Education: King

Welcome to Using Graphic Novels in Education, an ongoing feature from CBLDF that is designed to allay confusion around the content of graphic novels and to help parents and teachers raise readers. In this column, we examine graphic novels, including those that have been targeted by censors, and provide teaching and discussion suggestions for the use of such books in classrooms.

I just want to do God’s will, and he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, ad I’ve seeeen the Promised Land. And I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land…Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” — Martin Luther King, Memphis, 1968


In this post, we take a closer look at King by Ho Che Anderson (Fantagraphics, 1993; reprint edition 2010). This highly acclaimed award-winning biography integrates interviews, narrative, sketches, illustrations, photographs and collages as it pieces together an honest look at the life, times, tragedies, and triumphs of Martin Luther King Jr. For King, Anderson won the Harvey Awards for Best New Talent (1991); Best Graphic Album (1993); and Parents’ Choice Award (1995).

King was originally published in three volumes (1993-2002), went out of print in 2006, and was republished in a special edition in 2010. While very briefly introducing his father’s influence upon him, King focuses most of its attention on King’s adult path and his role in the civil rights movement. We learn about King through a weaving of first- and third-person narratives, providing personal glimpses and insights into the man (versus the legend). We learn why he was loved, feared, hated, and revered. We learn how he organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott and how he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and their Crusade for Citizenship, Freedom Rides, Lunch Counter Boycotts, Project C, and Birmingham Manifesto. We read about the March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (among others); his role in Chicago and CORE and his growing struggle promoting non-violent protests; and his tragic death in 1968. Aside from King’s own personal life, we also learn of his relationship with his colleagues and communities and with politicians such as the Kennedys and Lyndon B. Johnson. We learn not only about what he did, but how he navigated through politics and social change.

Table of Contents


King opens with King as a boy in 1935, knocking on his father’s office door as his father’s preparing for his weekly sermon. Young King is urged to get to his place in the pew with his sisters. While we experience little else of King’s childhood, this inference to his father’s influence is well done and well placed. The remainder of the book deals with King’s growing concern, participation, and leadership in the American Civil Rights Movement.

We learn of the movement’s inner workings, its challenges and tactics, and King’s persuasive push for nonviolent protest. What makes this so special is Anderson’s creative use of the graphic novel format, telling this story through a collage of narratives, dialogue, photos, and drawn images that effortlessly meld multiple perspectives. As a result, the book feels like an honest depiction of the man while relaying the struggles and conflicts faced by all those involved. What’s so unique about Anderson’s storytelling is that King is not so much the main character, as he is a primary player in the particular place and time in history. It is as much about the Civil Rights Movement as it is about King.


Anderson brilliantly and creatively plays with this graphic novel format and collage, creating a textured story and feel, similar to that of a documentary film. Interestingly, in the beginning of the book, the images are done in black and white with a splash of red reflecting more violent moments in history. Toward the end of the book, the feel of the art changes as does Anderson’s use of color. It feels like the color is introduced at the same point in history as color television became more available and accessible, and the art style also seems to reflect the growing popularity of the cubist movement at that time as well. Just as Anderson provides multiple voices in his narratives of King, he provides us with multiple visual aesthetics as well, creating a textured, personal feel throughout his story.


After a glimpse into King’s relationship with his father, which so influenced King in later life, the remainder of the book recalls Martin Luther Kings’ struggles, triumphs, challenges and tribulations in the American Civil Rights Movement. The main story opens with “The Witnesses,” who introduce us to Martin Luther King Jr., the man. Each of these voices relay their impressions of the man as the met, saw, glimpsed, and/or heard him. These and other witness impressions are interspersed throughout the book and help provide a wider perspective of King and the Civil Rights Movement. These witness impressions are mixed, allowing us to form our own opinions of the man.

While attempting to unfold King’s life in front of us, Anderson skips around a bit. To help the reader maintain a sense of time and place, Anderson introduces many major events with panels containing dates, locations, and names of important players. Here are some of the major milestones we follow:

  • kingin02Martin meets Coretta Scott King (Boston University, 1952), courts her, and eventually marries her (Alabama, June 18, 1953), all the while learning more about King, his goal, and ideals. We also learn of how difficult life was across America with segregation and Jim Crow laws.
  • Montgomery, Alabama, 1955: We meet Ralph Abernathy and read about the reaction to the Emmett Till story (“It’s getting so that anybody can kill a Negro and get away with it in the South, long as they go through the motions of a jury trial.”), Rosa Parks, and the Montgomery bus strike. We see King mobilizing the boycott by saying:

 “American citizens…determined to acquire our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning…our protest is a revolt with the system, not against it. We are out to reform…determined to get the situation corrected…we are here this evening to say to those who have mistreated us that we are tired of being segregated and humiliated by the brutal feet of oppression… Now, unity is the great need of the hour…If we protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written, somebody will have to say ‘There lived a race of people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights and for what they believed.’”

  • Anderson then jumps to New York City, March, 1957 and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters affair led by A. Philip Randolf and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP. We read how King and Bayard Rustin called 115 Black leaders, “mostly church folk” to Montgomery to plan a counter-offensive through a newly formed SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), where leaders of local affiliates coordinate local civil rights activity.
  • Readers learn about the SCLC’s Crusade for Citizenship — a voter drive of the southern states designed to double the number of Black voters by 1960. King saw this as a means to wield formidable political power in the upcoming local, state, and national elections. Voting clinics were set up by the SCLC to gather evidence of White obstruction of Blacks who wanted and/or tried to vote; to train Black youths and adult leaders in non-violent forms of protest; and to train them to utilize media to educate White Americans on the plight of Southern Blacks.
  • We also learn more about the SCLC’s involvement with SNCC and the lunch sit-ins across the South where mixed Black and White youth would sit at White-only counters at cafeterias hoping to be served.
  • Anderson postulates about the meetings King had with the then-Senator John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, as the former was running for President. We see how the Kennedys hoped for King’s support, and we learn of King’s reluctance to give it until they could more clearly demonstrate their support for civil rights.
  • Anderson takes us on the Freedom Rides, 1961. We learn that the Freedom Rides, launched by CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and assisted by the SCLC, were held across the South to challenge segregated interstate highway bus facilities. Two mixed busses carrying White and Black passengers departed from Washington D.C. and set out on a roundabout journey to New Orleans, testing terminal facilities. In Birmingham, a group led by the KKK destroyed the first bus, but the second one plowed through and continued to New Orleans.
  • We learn about Project C (Confrontation Birmingham), 1963 and the Birmingham Manifesto, the goal of which was to gain citywide desegregation of all public facilities. While the protests started out non-violent, local police eventually fired on the demonstrators. Anderson includes President Kennedy’s reaction to the violent reaction of Birmingham police. Here again, Anderson postulates and relays conversations Kennedy and King might have had.
  • The March on Washington, August 28, 1963: Anderson does a superb job of weaving witness reports, photographs, images, and texts of King’s speech to relay the impact and magnificence of his “I Have A Dream” speech.
  • Anderson then jumps to Chicago, 1966, and King’s role there in helping alleviate the horrible slums and housing issues faced by Blacks. It is here that we see King’s influence and success begin to waver as the younger gang leaders advocate for violence over King’s non-violent approach.
  • From Chicago, King’s death threats begin to weigh more heavily on him as do his failures. He begins to think of who his successors might be.
  • Anderson then takes us to a march in Memphis, 1968, which King was asked to attend. It turned violent, and we see how King left abruptly, not wanting to be associated with a violent march. He shortly thereafter returns to Memphis, trying to address the need for non-violent means of protest. It is here that he is assassinated while leaving the Lorraine Motel.

In short, Anderson’s King is told through collages of witness narratives, dialogue, sketches, drawings, and photographs, empowering us to evaluate the man while gaining a greater understanding of the politics, personalities, and issues of the 1950s and ‘60s and the American Civil Rights Movement.

Throughout King, Ho Che Anderson relays:

  • Who Martin Luther King Jr. was, along with his positive and not-so-positive attributes;
  • The effects of segregation and the Jim Crow laws in the mid-century America;
  • The background issues, conflicts and events that shaped the American Civil Rights Movement;
  • The development of local and of national civil rights leaders, how these leaders rose and maintained power and influence, and the sacrifices they often had to make;
  • The willpower it takes to maintain non-violent protests, especially when angry and faced with mounting confrontation;
  • The power of the peoples’ voices and votes in a democratic republic;
  • The powers and limits of local and national government in times of civic unrest;
  • The power of social gospel and non-violent protest in times of civic unrest;
  • The struggles that nations and individuals must endure when fighting for their principles and ideals;
  • The different ways people find the courage to stand up and fight for their rights;
  • The various struggles individuals, communities, and nations go through to invoke need change and growth;
  • The power of words, whether through books, newspapers, or oratory.


For Black History Month

  • Research and review the Jim Crow laws that were in effect in Alabama in the 1950s and/or research and review the Jim Crow laws observed by your local/state community in the 1950s.
  • Research, read, review, and discuss Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches — the excerpts included in this edition as well as the full texts found in the links below. Discuss what made them so powerful.
  • Research and reenact the lunch counter sit-ins. Make sure to discuss how difficult it often was for the protesters to remain calm and non-violent when being insulted, physically hit, removed, beaten, and/or arrested.
  • Compare how the sit-ins were detailed and relayed in Anderson’s King versus how they were discussed in John Lewis’ March: Book One. Compare how they were portrayed in these books versus how they were reported upon in local newspapers at the time (see links below for resources).
  • Discuss what it must have felt like to be excluded from busses, shops, and bathrooms across the country.

Cultural Diversity, Civic Responsibilities, and Social Issues

  • On pages 59-62, we see King interviewed on The Myron File television show with Murray Myron. Research and discuss King’s comment that, “…We always believed the White Church would stand with us through our struggles. Instead they’ve stood against us…Murray, once the Church shaped society. Today it measures rather than molds popular opinion.”
  • Analyze how the book’s different characters dealt with racism. Ask students how they might deal with racist comments, practices, and restrictions.
  • Discuss the witness statement on page 29 as he notes: “The Klan was pretty active publicly at the time…The North and South — they weren’t so different. Just the North hid it better. You weren’t as likely to see a nigger hanging from a tree in Central Park like you were in Dixie. Just as a for instance.” Discuss whether these differences still exist today? How/how not?
  • Discuss King’s early concern with Black leadership. For example, on page 31, King and Ralph Abernathy talk about the lack of leadership noting, “Your Daddy preached to the peoples, my Daddy preached to the peoples…Yet all these fools today seem to think their job is to to upset the White man lest they gets lynched…these preachers all seem to think their job is to get people into heaven and not do anything about life here and now. Well that’s not the way I was raised.”
  • Research and discuss the effectiveness of the 1960s sit-ins. On pages 80-81, for example, Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator John F. Kennedy discuss the effectiveness of the sit-ins as Kennedy seeks King’s endorsement in his race for the Presidency. Divide the class in half and debate each perspective.
  • Discuss King’s civic lesson on page 103 as he notes, “Obviously we want to gain the city-wide desegregation of all public facilities. But to bring that about we have to attack the business community rather than the city or federal governments. Basic activist philosophy, you don’t win against a political power structure where you don’t have votes, and so far we don’t have much of a voting presence despite what the same Toms may watt to believe with JFK… Anyway… you can win against an economic power structure when you have the economic power to make the difference between a merchant’s profit and loss.”
  • Discuss different options and means of protest. How have these options changed today, it at all, compared to the options King and his colleagues had in the 1960s.
  • Discuss and evaluate King’s underlying principles of non-violent protest.
  • Research, compare, and contrast the personal backgrounds, public struggles, and the underlying philosophies of various local and national figures of the civil rights movement.

Language, Literature, and Language Usage

  • Martin Luther King was a gifted orator. Read and discuss the power of his words found in this book and other resources below. For example,
    • On page 18, King addresses an audience saying, “Anger’s an easy thing to understand. It’s much harder to love…it takes courage to love. Courage faces fear and thereby masters it. Cowardice represses fear and is thereby mastered by it.”
    • On pages 44-47, shortly after the Rosa Parks incident, King addresses an audience at the Holt Street Baptist Church in rural Montgomery calling for further support of the bus boycotts. He says, “…our protest is a revolt with the system, not against it…We are here this evening to say to those who have mistreated us that we are tired of being segregated and humiliated by the brutal feet of oppression. We have sometimes give our white brothers the feeling that we liked the ways we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from a patience that makes us content with anything less than freedom – or justice…Now unity is the great need of the hour. If we are untied we can get many of the things that we not only desire but are due… In our protest there will be no violence, no white person will be taken from his home and lynched Our method will be persuasion, not coercion. Law and order and love must be our regulating ideals! ..If we protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, wen the history books are written somebody will have to say ‘There lived a race of people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights and for what they believed.’”
    • Read and discuss the full text of King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Compare it to another iconic speech (for example, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address). Discuss their use of language, sentence structure, length, and impact.
    • Search for, define, and discuss slang and idioms that were used to demean Blacks. Compare these words to words used today to demean Blacks, Whites, Jews, Asians or any other minority.
    • Search for, define, and discuss the book’s use of slogans, idioms, hyperbole and simile to better express opinions, feelings and cultural expressions.

Critical Thinking and Inferences

The authors make many inferences in this book both with language use and through imagery. You may want to discuss the following uses of inference:

  • Discuss the inferences of JFK’s reaction (page 126) to the Birmingham rally violence of May 3, 1963, as he says, “Fellow Americans, this nation was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened..”
  • Debate the pros and cons of violent versus non-violent protest as seen in this book and the resources below. Compare these non-violent protests to those today held across the world.
  • Discuss the wonderful inference in an Lyndon B. Johnson quote (page 152) as Anderson discusses J. Edgar Hoover, “LBJ refused to rein Hoover in, saying it was inadvisable to alienate ‘the powerful director.” I remember a quote, Johnson saying, ‘I prefer to have Hoover inside the tent pissing out, instead of inside pissing in…’”
  • On page 179, King meets with Floyd McKissick, National Director of CORE, and Stokely Carmichael, Chairman of SNCC. One of the things they discuss is the slogan and underlying inference of “Black Power.” Evaluate and discuss their conversation. Specifically, discuss King’s perspective on the connotations of the SNCC slogan as he asks Stokely: “I am asking you to please, please abandon this Black Power slogan. A leader has to be concerned with semantics, the connotations…”

Modes of Storytelling and Visual Literacy

In graphic novels, images are used to relay messages with and without accompanying text, adding additional dimension to the story. Compare, contrast, and discuss with students how images can be used to relay complex messages. For example:

  • At the beginning of the book we see young Martin from the back. We then read witnesses impressions of Martin as a man and leader. Only on page 12, do we first see King’s face. Discuss why this may be and how effective it is for us as we form our own impressions of King, the man.
  • Have students hunt for visual and verbal examples of racism, discrimination, and /or segregation, comparing how they are relayed through language and how they are relayed through image. Discuss the impact of these various forms of communication.
  • Discuss Anderson’s use of visual and verbal collage throughout the book and how it is used to provide greater textures and perspectives to King’s story.
  • The art forms within Anderson’s images changes throughout the book. Analyze these changes in style and the use of color and why they may have been made.
  • On pages 135-146, Anderson takes us to Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963, for King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” Discuss how the use of collage, photographs, images and font are used to make us feel like we too are witnessing and hearing King’s immortal words that day.

Suggested Prose Novel and Poetry Pairings

For greater discussion on literary style and/or content here are some prose novels and poetry you may want to read with King.

  • The Silence of Our Friends by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, and Nate Powell (First Second Books, 2012) — A semi-autobiographical story of Mark Long’s childhood experiences in Houston, Texas, 1968, centering around the Texas Southern University student boycott after the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCCC) was banned from its campus.
  • P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia — Winner of the Loretta Scott King Award (2013) and sequel to One Crazy Summer (Newbery Honor Book), this book reveals race, gender, and political issues of the late 1960s.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee — An American classic about a town struggling with racism and a trial that brings two families from opposing sides of the Civil Rights conflict to the forefront.
  • March Book One by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell — This first volume spans Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, his meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the birth of the Nashville Student Movement, and their battle against segregation. NOTE: This book has an awesome teacher’s guide too.
  • I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World by Martin Luther King Jr. — The text of King’s famous speech.
  • Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Doreen Rappaport and Bryan Collier (illustrator) — An extraordinary picture-book biography incorporating narrative, famous quotes from Dr. King, and powerful collage and watercolor illustrations that introduce King’s words and legacy to younger readers.
  • Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody — An autobiography of a poor Black girl whose parents were tenant farmers on a Mississippi plantation and whose dream of going to college was realized upon winning a basketball scholarship. We get first-hand accounts of her joining the NAACP, CORE, and SNCC, and the steps she took in demonstrations and sit-ins, along with her subsequent arrests and jailings.
  • Through My Eyes: Ruby Bridges by Ruby Bridges, Margo Lundell (Editor) — Ruby Bridges chronicles her steps in November 1960 as a six-year-old Black girl, surrounded by federal marshals as she walked through a mob of screaming segregationists into her school.
  • Nat Turner by Kyle Baker — Depicting the violent rebellion led by escaped slave Nat Turner, the book would serve as a discussion counterpoint to King’s mode of protest.


King is full of advanced vocabulary, eloquent oratory, witness dialogues, and street dialect and slang. It promotes critical thinking as readers must construct the story and build impressions of Martin Luther King Jr., the man and the leader. Furthermore, its graphic novel format provides verbal and visual story telling that addresses multi-modal teaching, and meets Common Core State Standards. As this book is dense and contains interview excepts, snippets of King’s speeches and some graphic language, it is recommended for young adult and mature readers. We present how it meets the following Common Core Anchor Standards:

  • Knowledge of Language: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials; demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meaning; acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking and listening at the college and career readiness level.
  • Key ideas and details: Reading closely to determine what the texts says explicitly and making logical inferences from it; citing specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text; determining central ideas or themes and analyzing their development; summarizing the key supporting details and ideas; analyzing how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of the text.
  • Craft and structure: Interpreting words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings and analyzing how specific word choices shape meaning or tone; analyzing the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs and larger portions of the text relate to each other and the whole; Assessing how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Integration of knowledge and ideas: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually…as well as in words; delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence; analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take
  • Range of reading and level of text complexity: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based of focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation; gather relevant information from ultiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of teach source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism; draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
  • Comprehension and collaboration: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively; integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively and orally; evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
  • Presentation of knowledge and ideas: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization; adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

This book and related discussions also cover the following themes identified by The National Council for the Social Studies:

  • Culture and Cultural Diversity — “…students need to comprehend multiple perspectives … to consider the strengths and advantages that this diversity offers to the society in general and to their own growth…to analyze the ways that a people’s cultural ideas and actions influence its members…”
  • Time, Continuity, and Change — “…facilitate the understanding and appreciation of differences in historical perspectives and the recognition that interpretations are influenced by individual experiences, societal values, and cultural traditions… examine the relationship of the past to the present and extrapolating into the future… provide learners with opportunities to investigate, interpret, and analyze multiple historical and contemporary viewpoints within and across cultures related to important events, recurring dilemmas, and persistent issues, while employing empathy, skepticism, and critical judgment…”
  • Individual Development and Identity — “…describe how family, religion, gender, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, and other group and cultural influences contribute to the development of a sense of self…have learners compare and evaluate the impact of stereotyping, conformity, acts of altruism, discrimination, and other behaviors on individuals and groups…”
  • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions — “…help learners understand the concepts of role, status, and social class and use them in describing the connections and interactions of individuals, groups, and institutions in society…analyze groups and evaluate the influence of institutions, people, events, and cultures in both historical and contemporary settings…identify and analyze examples of tensions between expressions of individuality and efforts of groups and institutions to promote social conformity…”
  • Power, Authority, and Governance — “…understanding the historical development of structures of power, authority, and governance and their evolving functions in contemporary American society… enable learners to examine the rights and responsibilities of the individual in relation to their families, their social groups, their community, and their nation… examine issues involving the rights, roles, and status of individuals in relation to the general welfare…explain conditions, actions, and motivations that contribute to conflict and cooperation within and among nations…challenge learners to apply concepts such as power, role, status, justice, democratic values, and influence…”
  • Civic Ideals and Practices — “…assist learners in understanding the origins and continuing influence of key ideals of the democratic republican form of government, such as individual human dignity, liberty, justice, equality, and the rule of law…analyze and evaluate the influence of various forms of citizen action on public policy…evaluate the effectiveness of public opinion in influencing and shaping public policy development and decision-making…”


Meryl Jaffe, PhD teaches visual literacy and critical reading at Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth OnLine Division and is the author of Raising a Reader! and Using Content-Area Graphic Texts for Learning. She used to encourage the “classics” to the exclusion comics, but with her kids’ intervention, Meryl has become an avid graphic novel fan. She now incorporates them in her work, believing that the educational process must reflect the imagination and intellectual flexibility it hopes to nurture. In this monthly feature, Meryl and CBLDF hope to empower educators and encourage an ongoing dialogue promoting kids’ right to read while utilizing the rich educational opportunities graphic novels have to offer. Please continue the dialogue with your own comments, teaching, reading, or discussion ideas at and please visit Dr. Jaffe at http://www.departingthe

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All images (c) Ho Che Anderson.