Je suis a fan of MLK, but are we using the celebration of his life as an opportunity to analyze his beliefs or just take a day off of school?

Je suis a fan of MLK, but are we using the celebration of his life as an opportunity to analyze his beliefs or just take a day off of school?

As a doctoral student in Curriculum Studies, I hope that every person will sink their teeth into Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (“Speech”). Look carefully at the language; it’s incredible and what’s most amazing is that Dr. King improvised part of the Speech while sitting on the podium during the March on Washington in 1963.

I taught the speech to fifth graders for several years as part of a thematic unit on fighting oppression. I was struck by my students’ ability to tease out central metaphors in the Speech that still resonate today:

• Flames of withering injustice [and] the quick sands of racial injustice
• The tranquilizing drug of gradualism
• A lonely island of poverty in a vast ocean of material prosperity

At age 11, these students were dialoguing about the condition of black people in the 60s and raising searing questions about social and political inequities. They challenged me and other teachers at our elementary school:

• “What’s going on in our [society’s] soul?”
• “Did you protest?”
• “Can we [as white adolescents] really understand the black struggle?”
• [Still,] “we need to know about our past.”

Even though the speech is 51 years old, it is imperative that historical connections be made, just like my students did years ago. Oppressive practices persist. In terms of opportunities (or lack thereof) in education, as Nicholas Kristof of the New York times reported on August 30th of last year,

“Black students are significantly less likely to attend schools offering advanced math and science courses than white students. They are three times as likely to be suspended and expelled, setting them up for educational failure.”*

I’m told that President Obama’s State of the Union speech tomorrow will highlight the ever widening economic divide, notwithstanding the upticks in the economy.

In spite of racial injustice, over fifty years ago, King was hopeful. And my students picked up on that sense of hope in their interpretations of the Speech and related materials: “be strong in your beliefs” and “[wrestle with] hope and despair, despair and hope.”

When I think back about our discussions, I think Dr. King sent a mixed message. He was hopeful, but there was so much work to be done. Nonetheless, my students’ dialogue and creativity touched my soul.

I love using primary sources to teach, especially about an icon like Dr.King, who worked for the betterment of mankind. Just a couple of practical suggestions: let your students engage in wordplay with the Speech (extending ideas in the Speech or creating a more personal meaning) or make connections though media focusing on today’s current events; it helps them internalize and deepens the dialogue. Tell your students that dignitaries like Nelson Mandela or Daisaku Ikeda, studied King. Did you know that when Mandela was released from prison in South Africa, he shouted, “Free at last?”

So, on this MLK day, ask yourself, are your students encouraged to sink their teeth into this Speech or other meaty, primary sources? Are they free to dialogue about the issue of race at school?

As much as I want to remain hopeful, today, …

…I have a doubt. I have a doubt that [soon, some] day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, “We hold these truths to be self evident…

Establishing a holiday is not enough. We need to engage with primary sources and start open dialogues with our students so that they can empathize, make authentic connections, and work for social change and justice. Only then will we be moving to Dr. King’s vision of “hope” and the true meaning of “free at last.”

* See,

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