What the Newly Discovered Martin Luther King Jr. Speech Teaches Kids Today
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial is considered one of the top ten greatest speeches ever, but it wasn’t the first time King shared his dream in such a stirring way.
A rare recording of a similar speech he delivered to a smaller crowd in North Carolina on November 27, 1962 was discovered in August of 2015 and digitally restored (listen to the recording on SoundCloud). At the invitation of the local NAACP, King spoke to nearly 1,800 people at a high school in Rocky Mount. No one knew a tape of the speech existed until English Professor Jason Miller found the dusty reel-to-reel in storage at the town library.
The 55-minute newly discovered MLK speech is longer than the legendary address he delivered to more than 200,000 civil rights marchers in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963, but it contains the now familiar “I have a dream” message.
More than the historical significance of this tape, King’s unearthed speech has much to teach students today, and it has an interesting connection to his speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
His script for the televised nationwide speech did not contain the words, “I have a dream,” because he had been advised against using what had become a familiar refrain to his supporters. Wyatt Walker, his advisor, told King that those words had grown “trite” and “clichéd.” In reality, few outside those closest to the civil rights movement had heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak at length.
As the 16th speaker at the March on Washington that sweltering summer day, King was certainly aware that the crowd was growing tired and overheated. Before finishing his scripted remarks, King is said to have pushed his text aside to speak off script. It was then that singer Mahalia Jackson reportedly shouted out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”
“Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream,” King began. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”
The words are strikingly similar to those he spoke in the North Carolina high school, so that speech may have served as a precursor for these unplanned words to the nation. In the newly released recording King says, “I have a dream tonight that one day my little daughter and my two sons will grow up in a world not conscious of the color of their skin but only conscious that they are members of the human race.”
Although Martin Luther King Jr. died more than 50 years ago, he still has much to teach today’s children. Read on for lessons students can learn from King and this recently discovered speech.
Be Genuine, Speak from the Heart
Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream for the nation in a poetic and straightforward way at the Booker T. Washington High School in North Carolina. Fortunately, he also chose to do so during his televised address at the Lincoln Memorial in a non-scripted, impromptu manner. The scripted portion of his speech was effective and well-crafted, but when he spontaneously spoke from the heart saying, “I have a dream,” it resonated then and now because it connected emotionally as well as intellectually. Students can learn from King to balance their intellectual arguments with their heartfelt feelings when speaking to others. In doing so, they will be more effective at getting across their ideas and making real connections with others.
“You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” ―Martin Luther King Jr.
Stand Up against Injustice
King risked his safety and ultimately lost his life to fight against the injustices he witnessed. It’s a noble lesson that kids can learn, even on a smaller scale. Students can look up to Martin Luther King Jr. as a role model when they come face-to-face with injustices. Not standing by when others are bullied or treated unfairly is something kids should be taught. It is a lesson in integrity that they can take into their adult lives.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” ―Martin Luther King Jr.
Hone Your Craft
Martin Luther King Jr.’s adviser criticized his “I Have a Dream” refrain because he had heard it before. But King was wise to make a number of local speeches where he improved his already impeccable speaking skills and message. Once kids have determined the areas where they shine they should make every effort to continue to practice and improve their skills. Just because they are doing something well, doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.
“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” —Martin Luther King Jr.
Violence is Not Necessary
Through his eloquent and persuasive speeches, Martin Luther King Jr. achieved far more than any violent protest ever could. As protests pop up in Ferguson, Missouri, and other places around the country, it’s important for kids to see that non-violent demonstrations and other non-violent methods are effective in protesting injustices. And even on a smaller scale, kids can learn that speaking calmly and rationally about a perceived injustice in their own lives is far more effective than angry words or temper tantrums.
“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.” —Martin Luther King Jr.
Choose a Cause
In a wealthy country like the United States, it’s easy for children to become self-focused and ignore the needs of others. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and speeches can be used to inspire students to find a cause they believe in, such as civil rights for all people, and become a champion of that cause. Listen to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with your children and ask them where they’ve seen injustice and how they might work to prevent it. They might even make a difference with something as simple as voicing their concerns on social media.
“Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” ―Martin Luther King Jr.
Featured Image – Wikimedia Commons
This post was updated January 2020
Elizabeth Street is a writer for Learning Liftoff. For the past 20 years, she has written newsletter and website content for nonprofit and corporate organizations on such topics as the plight of children of prisoners worldwide, the lack of prenatal care for mothers in developing countries, and child mentoring programs. She has a particular interest in the importance of providing all children with a quality education regardless of their family’s financial status or background. A native of Virginia, Elizabeth is a graduate of James Madison University and loves animals, with particular fondness for her two cats, Oscar and Emmy.