“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” The opening of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech reminds us that these words grew out of a major event, not a textbook. It is August of 1963, and hundreds of thousands of Americans are crowded before the Lincoln Memorial as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Near the end of the day, Dr. King addresses the hot, tired, but invigorated crowd with some of the most resonant words in our nation’s history. Shouldn’t the words themselves receive the greatest attention?
While virtually all U.S. history curricula cover Martin Luther King Jr.’s accomplishments, they often give no more than a glance to the speeches themselves. Most students learn that “I Have a Dream” is one of the most famous speeches in history. But what do they learn about the speech itself? What can they recite aside from the title’s refrain, the ending reference to the Negro spiritual, or perhaps “they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”?
As important as these lines are, they represent just a fraction of the orator’s richness of thought. By digging into his words, rather than a textbook summary of his ideas, students can appreciate King’s rhetorical strategies:
- Different modes of persuasion (ethos, pathos, and logos)
- Figurative language
- Historical and religious allusions
- Sentence structure and punctuation
Practicing What King Preached
Because Martin Luther King Jr. was a preacher who believed in the power of the written and spoken word, communicating was not just a means to an end. The words themselves were art and truth, meant to inspire just as much as his actions. As students will learn by studying his speech, King refers to numerous other speeches, songs, religious texts, and political documents, understanding the weight and influence of these original sources.
Without studying the entirety of King’s speech, students miss on his truly indelible mark on America’s Civil Rights movement and intellectual history. Bring Martin Luther King Jr. to life in your classroom this year by living among his very words.