Curriculum Q&A

More Than a Dream: How to Teach King’s Famous, and Often Simplified, Speech

By Brenda Iasevoli — August 27, 2018 7 min read
Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.
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On August 28, 1963, 250,000 people from across the country descended on the National Mall for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was a peaceful political demonstration, and one of the largest in history. It ushered in an era that, in many classrooms, has been defined by the uplifting images in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech of a time when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as brothers and sisters.”

Yet often missing from lessons on King’s speech, some educators say, are the violent struggles, the beatings and arrests that were everyday occurrences in the fight for civil rights. It was struggle as much as hope that brought crowds to the national mall to hear King deliver his peaceful yet tough words.

It’s the “tough” part of the message that gets lost in the making of the heroic King. As Stephen Sawchuk writes in Education Week, the “tidying up” of King’s legacy in the classroom was seen as necessary in securing a federal holiday in his name. Sawchuk points to a 2014 review by the social justice and anti-bias curriculum project Teaching Tolerance that looks at states’ academic-content standards on the civil rights movement. The review found that 37 states required teaching about King, while other key leaders and events, particularly the extent of white resistance to integration, were missing from most of the standards.

Any lesson tackling the full complexity of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech would have to account for the brutality activists faced, and continue to face, in their fight for equal rights. How might teachers do this? We asked two educator experts—Lauryn Mascareñaz and Marcia Chatelain—to weigh in. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Lauryn Mascareñaz is the director of equity in Wake County, N.C., schools. She also writes curriculum materials for Teaching Tolerance.

What are some ways teachers can approach King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech without painting him simplistically as a hero?

Mascareñaz: I think it’s important to pay attention to all the parts that don’t say ‘I have a dream.’ There are 16 minutes before King even gets to that point. He’s really reading people the riot act, and he’s taking no prisoners. People think of him as a placid, nonviolent person, and he was. But in the speech, he’s taking the American government to task. He’s taking white people to task. He’s pretty tough describing the black experience: ‘America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’

Many teachers don’t take the speech as a whole. They only look at the ‘dream’ parts, and then they have kids do cute worksheets on ‘I have a dream that there’s world peace one day.’ I try to convince people to dig deeper: Who is King speaking for? Who is this speech directed toward? What do his words mean for our nation right now? Is Dr. King’s dream alive today?

How can teachers help kids in the lower grades understand King’s speech?

Mascareñaz: I taught kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, and 4th grades. I would have kids each memorize one line. And these are lines with some really intense vocabulary, like ‘jangling discords of our nation,’ which we had to break down and talk about. I’d have them do visualization activities: What does ‘jangling discords’ look like? What picture do you see in your mind?

Did you teach the entire speech to your youngest students?

Mascareñaz: I have played the entire speech for students as young as 2nd grade. Second graders don’t necessarily need to understand all the vocabulary to understand how King is able to capture an audience. They can describe what King is doing with his voice. My students would say, ‘He sounds like church.’ And like older kids, they can point to words that create a visual image. My students always remembered kids sitting down together at the table of brotherhood.

Little kids also know when someone is boring and when someone is interesting. For the teacher, it’s just a matter of scaffolding, and asking: What is making the person interesting? Can you use some of what he is doing when you are speaking?

What kinds of questions did your students ask you about the speech?

Mascareñaz: They would ask about all the places King mentions. So, on my computer, I’d show them pictures of the Stone mountains in Georgia, the Alleghenies in Pennsylvania, the snow capped Rockies of Colorado. I would ask: Why is King mentioning places all over the country? Is this just a Southern issue?

Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.

Is there something you know now that you wish you had taught your students?

Mascareñaz: I wish I had known some Teaching Tolerance lessons, in particular ‘Do Something,’ an action you take after learning about an issue that strikes a chord. Students might have written a PSA [public service announcement] informing people in their school or neighborhood about King’s speech, or they could have proposed a way of remembering King. That would have been the final step to help them internalize the lessons.

Marcia Chatelain is an associate professor of history and African American Studies at Georgetown University.

You have talked about ‘complicating’ the March on Washington and King’s legacy. What do you mean by that?

Chatelain: Many young people learn about civil rights through the idea of heroes and villains, imagining that a portion of the public was on the right side of history, and that’s not true. So when the speech gets reduced to people being friends with each other, it leaves young people thinking that personal relationships are the only ways that we can combat inequality. Instead, we should be thinking about the larger social responsibility that comes with making sure that people have access to things on an equal basis. One way to complicate the March on Washington and King’s legacy is by helping students to draw direct lines between the civil rights movement as it was articulated in mid-century and the movement for economic and racial justice today.

How do you suggest educators approach the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech?

Chatelain: Teachers should take three things into account: One, the March on Washington was a reflection on the 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The mood of the day was to think, ‘Where has the United States been in those 100 years, after the informal end of slavery?’

Two, teach the speech in context. The March on Washington was an interracial gathering around the issues of jobs and freedom. What does it mean for there to be an economic justice question embedded in the title of the march? It’s the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

And three, the part of the speech that I think is most compelling is when King says, ‘America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ Here you can talk about a bank of justice that isn’t delivering for people, and ask students, in which areas was the country failing to deliver in 1963? It was happening in terms of schools, it was happening in terms of voting, job opportunities, safety, and residential segregation. So he lays out where the fault lines are and we can ask, ‘What does it mean to owe justice to a group of people who have been left behind?’

Why do you think teachers focus on the ‘dream’ part of the speech?

Chatelain: That’s the way they were taught. In the past 20 years in terms of the Martin Luther King holiday and the statue in [Washington] D.C., there’ve been ways in which King has been portrayed as an unsophisticated person who just wants to make sure everyone gets along, rather than a person who is making serious challenges to the status quo. He was someone who wasn’t uniformly beloved; he was often maligned. Yet some of the ways King was a contentious figure in his own time have been erased by a simplification of who he was in his time as well as his legacy. A lot of it is tied to the manipulation of his legacy as part of the holiday, but we’re fortunate that there are scholars who are dedicated to the sophisticated teaching of King’s legacy and so we have resources to fight that.

What resources do you suggest teachers use to support their lessons?

Chatelain: Teachers should go to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and to Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, which has online digitized resources that include written documents in King’s own hand.

Do you teach the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech to your college students?

Chatelain: I do. The ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and the speech he delivered the day before his death I think are the two most powerful for students because they show an evolution in his articulation over a five-year period. The thing that remains at the heart of both of those speeches is this idea of economic justice.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.