Closer Readings Commentary

I Have a Dream: The Vision of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Participants, some carrying American flags, marching in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.
Photo caption

Participants, some carrying American flags, marching in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.

On the third Monday of January, Americans celebrate the life and achievement of one of our most respected citizens — Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was a leading force in the drive for civil rights in the United States, and he showed through words and actions that non-violent, persistent activism can achieve tremendous results by appealing to the moral conscience of Americans.


James Karales’s majestic photograph "Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights, 1965" gives us a memorable image of the American moral conscience in action. Transcending its documentary function as a record of the protest march that Dr. King called and led, which brought 25,000 Americans on a four-day trek across the state of Alabama, the photograph shows the desire for political freedom is the shared heritage of all Americans. More information and classroom activities on this photograph are available in the Picturing America Teachers Resource Book, chapter 19-B) 



To supplement the video produced by the Biography Channel about the march from Selma to Montgomery provided above, EDSITEment has a number of resources, activities, and lesson plans to help teachers, students, parents, and caregivers understand the impact Dr. King had — and continues to have — upon our country and the global efforts towards peace and civil rights. To learn about Dr. King’s career, visit the extensive biography, timelines, chronolologies, and journals available on the NEH-funded Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project.

Students will likely be most familiar with Dr. King’s famous "I Have a Dream" speech given during the August 28, 1963 "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." At the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, the transcript and (partial) audio recording of "I Have a Dream" are available in the animated multimedia presentation, Freedom's Ring. Introduce K–2 students to the civil rights movement and to the "I Have a Dream" speech with the EDSITEment lesson plan Dr. King’s Dream. This exemplary speech is one of many that mark Dr. King’s rich oratory abilities, and an exploration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project website will provide ample examples of American oratory, in which King drew upon natural law philosophy, Biblical references, spirituals, and a deep knowledge and understanding of American principles and history. For example, the eloquent call for justice in King’s "I Have a Dream" speech concludes with the lines from a well-known spiritual:

"Let freedom ring from every hill and mole hill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring, and when this happens...when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

EDSITEment has plenty of resources for students of all ages on Dr. King and the civil rights movement. Older primary school students can engage with the subject of the late Dr. King with the grades 3–5 lesson plan Let Freedom Ring: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School and World History students will be able to investigate the deep links between Dr. King’s pursuit of change through nonviolent means and the successful campaign by Mahatma Mohandas K. Gandhi to free India from British colonial rule in the grades 6–8 lesson plan Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Power of Nonviolence. Finally, in the grades 9–12 lesson plan, Ordinary People, Ordinary Places: The Civil Rights Movement, high school students will have the opportunity to learn about the civil rights movement by visiting places, such as the South, where the battles of the movement took place.

The civil rights movement was not free of inner conflict among civil rights leaders. There were sharp disagreements about tactics and strategies. In Competing Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, high school students learn how the views of the leaders of the civil rights movement diverged on about the methods necessary to secure those rights. In this curriculum unit they will find out about the differing philosophies of Dr. King, Malcolm X, and Dr. Joseph H. Jackson (among others) through their speeches and correspondence. In addition to these resources, teachers, parents, and caregivers can use the following supplementary activities, which draw on EDSITEment’s reviewed websites and peer-reviewed lesson plans, to introduce students to the legacy of Dr. King.

Activity: Spiritual Influence

Dr. King’s power use of spirituals is the subject of Activity 5 in the EDSITEment lesson plan Spirituals. Sit down with your students or children and read through the speech. As they get the sense of the cadence of the speech, and the use of call-and-response, share with them the power of spirituals discussed throughout the lesson. How does call-and-response help shape and form communities? What kind of community is Dr. King trying to form, based on his speech?

Activity: Investigating the National Archives Digital Vaults

To help students understand the power and magnitude of the march on Washington in 1963, visit the EDSITEment-reviewed The National Archives website’s new feature, The Digital Vault together. Sit down with your students or children and explore historical images of the March on Washington by using Digital Vault's search function.

  • At The National Archives website, find the Digital Vault homepage
  • Type "I Have a Dream" into the search text box.
  • From the left hand side column, pick the "Martin Luther King" tab
  • Pick any of the digital images which appear

Through these archival documents, students can begin to understand the broad importance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy in the United States, as well as the right to assemble guaranteed by the Constitution’s First Amendment that make such movements possible. As a conclusion to this activity, explore the Bill of Rights together and discuss how they specifically apply to important issues of both the recent past and today.

Activity: The Early Years

Visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project and read with your students or children some of Dr. King’s earliest prose. His childhood letters to his family and friends, such as his To Martin Luther King, Sr. (January 18, 1940) and To Alberta Williams King (June 20, 1940), showcase a young person deeply aware of his community, committed to family, and diligent in his studies. His hard work resulted in the following speech written for a public-speaking contest, for which he was selected as a representative to the state-wide competition. In this speech, the young Martin concluded "My heart throbs anew in the hope that inspired by the example of Lincoln, imbued with the spirit of Christ, they will cast down the last barrier to perfect freedom."

With your students or children, read the letters the young King wrote to his parents and then read aloud all or part of his speech that he wrote and presented as a student. The notes that precede the text of the speech relate an important anecdote in which King and his teacher were forced to give up their seats on the long bus trip to Georgia for the competition. Ask your students or children how these early written texts and the experiences they relate reveal aspects of Dr. King’s character and even foreshadow his future work in civil rights. To conclude the activity, ask them to write a letter to a friend or relative in which they detail the aspects of their daily activities. What does their letter reveal about them and what their future may hold?

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