How can teachers do justice to Martin Luther King this month? Teach his speeches. Develop the context. Analyze the themes. Probe each word for meaning. I’ve done that with the “I Have a Dream" speech (“Speech”) for over a decade. You owe it to your students to enlighten them about King the writer—in addition to the King they’ve heard so much about—the orator, the activist, and the moral leader.
Before you teach the Speech, build context. Make it personal. Do students’ grandparents have any memories of the Speech? Do you, as a teacher? I tell my students that I was five when the Speech was delivered. By that age, I already knew that there was a huge divide between whites and blacks. When visiting my grandparents in Florida in 1962, I was surprised that a black girl my age stepped away from a drinking fountain to let me drink first.
That image—separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks—helped my fifth grade students visualize segregation. It moved them to look for more images on their own. Students came in with pictures of police dogs attacking protestors, lunch counter sit-ins, and books about the Civil Rights Movement, like The Watson’s go to Birmingham. Their research made history come alive and gave King’s words even more meaning and depth.
One of the best analyses of King’s Speech is Michael Clay Thompson’s, Free at Last, The Language of Dr. King’s Dream. Until I read Thompson’s book, I never knew that King stopped reading from the text of the speech—somewhere in the middle—and just delivered the rest from his heart. I tell students so often that good writing comes from the heart. But before King relinquished his notes, he used so many brilliant literary techniques to convey his message, the themes of power, freedom, hope, and change.
While watching the Speech on television fifty years ago, President Kennedy apparently told colleagues, “that guy is really good (p. 7).” As you read through the Speech with your students, help them draw conclusions as to why King, the writer, is so “good” at conveying his message to his audience. In my mind, it had a lot to do with the powerful literary devices:
Anaphora or repetition. Did you know that MLK repeated “we can never be satisfied,” six times, “now is the time,” four times, “I have a dream,” eight times, and “let freedom ring” 12 times?
Metaphor—King was a master of metaphor: “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism, solid rock of brotherhood, cup of bitterness, “the bad check,” and “the high plane of dignity.”
Opposites: Close your eyes and imagine King speaking: “now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.” The Speech is filled with so many more compelling images of opposites.
Biblical Allusion: “Justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Allusions to philosophical differences: “the marvelous new militancy…must not lead us to distrust of all white people.”
Allusions to segregationists: the governor whose lips “are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification.”
Don’t worry, I’ve left plenty for you and your students to discover. This speech is so rich. Let your students have fun with the alliteration, the spirituals, and the meter.
There will be students who want more, who want to delve into this chapter in our history. I let them become resident experts. They researched and talked about Malcolm X’s “marvelous new militancy.” Or, vicious Governor George Wallace. Some engaged in creative collaboration and came up with skits, raps, or poems. Still others looked into those who influenced King, i.e., Gandhi.
I taught this speech as part of a unit on “Fighting Oppression.” We also read part of the Narrative of Frederick Douglass and some pieces of poetry. If you are interested in more information, email me; I am happy to provide links and ideas.
Students need to analyze texts written by inspirational leaders. Wise leaders. Leaders who recognize that “we cannot walk alone,” for we are in a global community. Leaders who understand that we must collaborate to effectuate change and ensure personal freedoms.
Walk through this speech with your students. You will be doing justice to them as well as MLK and his message. Remind them that sadly, King’s message is still very relevant today.