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Historical Voices

Major Issues and Speech Characteristics in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have a Dream..." speech

Lesson Objectives:

The student will be able to:

  1. demonstrate understanding of the civil rights era in US history by describing one issue that Dr King fought for
  2. describe an event surrounding a major speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  3. identify two aspects of the craft of speaking in an MLK Jr. speech
  4. connect Dr King's era to the present day by offering one example of what has changed, and what hasn't, since his death

Related Standards for Social Studies

Strand I. Historical Perspective (Middle school)

Students should be able to use knowledge of the past to construct meaningful understanding of our diverse cultural heritage and to inform their civic judgments. Describe major factors that characterize the following eras in United States history: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900), The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930), The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945), Post War United States (1945-1970) and Contemporary United States (1968-present).

Related Standards for English Language Arts

(Middle School, #4, 8)

Standard 8. Genre and Craft of Language

All students will explore and use the characteristics of different types of texts, aesthetic elements, and mechanics--including text structure, figurative and descriptive language, spelling, punctuation, and grammar--to construct and convey meaning.

Point 4. Identify and use aspects of the craft of the speaker, writer, and illustrator to formulate and express their ideas artistically. Examples include color and composition, flashback, multi- dimensional characters, pacing, appropriate use of details, strong verbs, language that inspires, and effective leads. Describe and use the characteristics of various oral, visual, and written texts (e.g. debate, drama, primary documents, and documentaries) and the textual aids they employ (e.g., prefaces, appendices, lighting effects, and microfiche headings) to convey meaning and inspire audiences.

More information on Academic Standards for different content areas and different States can be found from the sites below:

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning in Aurora, Colorado, is a site that provides K-12 academic curriculum content standards.

Achieve is a site that contains the academic state standards for over 40 states. These state standards are from Achieve's National Standards Clearinghouse and have been provided courtesy of Achieve, Inc. in Cambridge Massachusetts and Washington, DC.

Lesson activities:

Activity 1

  1. Journal writing.
    • Ask students to write in their journals all the holidays they know of on the US calendar. Who, or what, are those holidays named after?
    • Ask what holidays students came up with. Give them hints to lead to Dr Martin Luther King Jr's holiday, if they don't come up with it.
    • Then tell the students that today's lesson is about one of the major speeches Dr. King made in his life. Tell the students the goals of the lesson, writing them on the chalkboard, and briefly preview the lesson with them.
  2. Tell the students to get into groups of four or five each.
  3. Ask the students which resources, and places, would be useful to start looking for information on Dr King. Lead them towards mentioning the Internet. Ask if anyone has ever searched for information on the Internet. Using the following link or other links you know of, let students visit the sites and look for the following information in their respective groups:
    • the year of his birth and death, and the age at which he died
    • the honors he received in his lifetime and after
    • the year of the march on Washington, D. C. and how many people it attracted
    • the name of the act passed after the march
    • examples of other marches Dr King led; etc, depending on the number of groups.
  4. Tell the students they are going to listen to the speech that is considered the greatest that Dr. King ever gave. In their groups, they should pay attention to particular aspects of the speech, including:
    • poetry, such as repetition and images;
    • analogy, such as references to banks, checks, bankruptcy;
    • advice to his people on how to conduct their struggle
    • reference to hills and mountains and rivers.
  5. Still in their groups, depending on the number of computers connected to the internet in the classroom, give students the following URL which has sound recordings of Dr King's speeches. Let students go to the site, and listen to the speech, "I have a dream..." (the speech runs 17 minutes; you can select which parts to listen to).

Activity 2

Have students go to the front, one group at a time, to write on the board the aspects their group focused on in Dr King's speech. What phrases and words did he repeat? Where did he use poetic images, and why? Where did he use analogies, and why? What advice did he give to his listeners, and why? Why did he refer to hills, mountains, rivers, etc? As you and the students try to answer these questions, refer to the goals of the lesson so they know why you are asking the questions.

Give students copies of the speech's transcript, and discuss phrases and vocabulary words: Emancipation Proclamation, manacles of segregation, chains of discrimination, languished, promissory note, unalienable rights, tranquilizing drug of gradualism, interposition, nullification, curvaceous, etc.

Activity 3

Have a whole class discussion on events in recent months or years which Dr King might have commented on, had he still been alive. (Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, the disputes in the 2000 presidential election, etc). Which civil rights? leaders address similar issues today?

Class Assesment:

Have the whole class rate each group on an agreed scale. Base student achievement on their:

  • Journals: how many holidays did each student come up with?
  • Group presentations: did each student in the group contribute in the presentation?
  • Did each group provide enough examples in their assignments

Other links for more resources


    New York Times lesson plan about segregated schools. In this two-day lesson plan, students examine the struggle for desegregation during the Civil Rights Movement and a current study that finds that American schools are reverting to segregation.
    Contains links to several sites with lesson plans and essays on MLK, and transcripts of some of this speeches.
    Has short audio clips of MLK, Presidents FDR, JFK, Nixon, Clinton, and of activist Malcolm X, World War II clips of Churchill, and others