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What’s the real story  behind historic speech?

The 50th anniversary of The Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is an opportunity to examine more than just the speech itself and the effect it has had on the world. It is also a chance to learn the history that led to and produced that extraordinary moment.

Author and lecturer Simon Sinek analyzed the leadership qualities of King with one simple observation. King, he noted, did not stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and declare, “I have a plan!” King’s dream was a vision of social, political and economic justice. His message is what made him such an influential, even transformative civil rights leader. Sinek is implying that the great lesson of “I have a dream” is to reveal the secret of King’s charismatic leadership and the inspired followers who shared their leader’s vision.

The conclusion may be accurate, but history is a messy business. If the goal was just to study great leaders like King, educating students about the civil rights movement would be both comforting and comfortable, but it is neither.

By the time students at ConVal enter a U.S. History class as juniors, they are very familiar with two figures from the civil rights movement; Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Too frequently, the version of the Rosa Parks story they know is only slightly more historically accurate than the story of young George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. Our collective understanding of the civil rights movement appears to be distilled to just two images and even these are prone to distortion. As teachers, parents and concerned adults, we can help our students develop the ability to analyze, to look deeper and question conventional wisdom. Sometimes the bias we uncover is our own, sometimes it belongs to the author, but there is always some form of bias at work.

Analyzing what King actually said is relatively straightforward and worth the effort. However, events taken out of context are particularly prone to distortion, so what was the political, social, cultural and economic environment of the time? Has the speech always been viewed with the same admiration as it is today? Were there people within the civil rights movement who disagreed with King’s dream or how to achieve it? These are the questions we ask our students to investigate.

King was an important participant in the rally, but he didn’t organize the march. That was done largely by labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist, and Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP. These were not minor characters in the civil rights movement but they typically get treated as such. Whole lessons can be devoted to examining these leaders, the 260,000 people who showed up that day to hear them speak and the 20,000 non-violent civil rights activists who were arrested in 1963.

It is worth remembering that King spoke at “A March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” History has de-emphasized the “jobs” part of the rally, yet our students are much more likely to be affected by income inequality than racial tensions, and not just because New Hampshire is more than 94 percent caucasian.

Economic justice is perhaps even more of a dream today than it was 50 years ago. Given the opportunity, students experience empathy with all people from history, in addition to admiration for charismatic leaders like King. What we experience as we read and watch the speech today was a true preacher at work.

Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who performed earlier at the rally, is said to have exhorted, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” What we remember most today is that incredible oratory in which King left the prepared speech and invoked his dream from earlier sermons. It still has the power to send shivers down our spines, especially when we have developed the historic imagination to put ourselves there, at that moment.

Greg O’Brien is a teacher in the ConVal High School Social Studies Department.

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