Delving into Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Rhetoric

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech can inspire students to explore the world of rhetoric.

By Cathy Neushul



As Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is celebrated in schools across the country, teachers have students read parts of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech made during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. This was a momentous occasion in which hundreds of thousands of people gathered before the Washington Monument to unite for a common cause – civil rights for all.

While most students have heard the part of the speech in which Dr. King enumerates the dreams he has for the future, many may not have read the full text. The speech is rich in imagery, references to other documents, and beauty. Dr. King paints a picture of the current situation in America, which was bleak in many ways, and adds language to give people hope. You can have your students read the full text, while pointing out key parts. For example, when describing why the Emancipation Proclamation was a step toward equal rights for African Americans, but not the solution to inequality,  Dr. King said:

One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.

The Words Paint a Picture

This type of imagery and description is memorable and haunting. Dr. King’s goal was not only to educate his listeners, but to call them to action. The words he used were carefully crafted to convey his message and inspire others to join in the fight for civil rights.

In this speech, Dr. King refers to famous documents, like the Declaration of Independence, and alludes to events with which everyone living during the 1960’s would be familiar. In order for students to understand the references made throughout the speech, they need to know a little about the history of our country and the societal climate during this era. For example, Dr. King said:

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Going to the Source

You can have your students read over parts of the Declaration of Independence that discuss people’s unalienable rights. You could also discuss how the founding fathers decided who would, and would not, be granted these unalienable rights.

The 1960’s were a time of social change, and students should learn about the different groups whcih were formed to fight for civil rights. You could have your students do a research project on the NAACP, the Freedom Riders, or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, etc. Once they had done research on their group of choice, they could present to the rest of the class.

You could also have your students create individual timelines to detail the main events in both Dr. King’s life and the civil rights movement. Students could then share information to create a class timeline that they could display in the classroom.

As part of a longer project, you could have students work on speeches to combat a form of injustice in society. They could discuss the types of techniques they would like to use to persuade people to follow their example. In the end, Dr. King’s speech can be an example for all students in the art of rhetoric and the influence one person’s actions can have on society.

Finally, you could have students listen to this famous speech. While the words themselves are unforgettable, hearing them spoken by Dr. King really brings the message home.

"I Have a Dream" Lessons:

"I Have a Dream" Presentation Speeches

This activity requires students to write their own speeches and present them to the rest of the class. They will learn what makes a good speech by analyzing Dr. King’s speech. They will write and present their own speeches, and then critique the speeches of their peers.  

Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" Speech

Students will share their understanding of Dr. King’s speech by creating a “jackdaw”, or a collection of documents and objects. There is a list of materials/resources required for this activity that is included in the lesson plan.

Digital Dreams

In this series of lessons, students will have the opportunity to make a list of their dreams, and then create a collage that reflects their dreams. They will also read and discuss excerpts from speeches such as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” and JFK’s inauguration speech of 1961. They will also write their own speeches, and present them with a PowerPoint presentation which they create to go alongside their speeches.