Three Teaching Insights from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Speech

As an English teacher, I love a good story. As a believer in a higher power, I hope to one day see how the individual strands of our lives are woven together into a beautiful scene, one that will make sense of the knotted, uneven, and apparent randomness that is our view of today (read Corrie ten Boom’s poem about this concept here). As a writer, I recognize foreshadowing, and I love a good plot twist. As a student of history, I search for meaning and sometimes when the story is powerful, I see patterns where none might exist. Sometimes though, history tells such a compellingly story that I am bold enough to say, “This means something. What is the message to me?

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’d like to be so bold as to suggest that there is meaning for this millennium in MLK’s "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, delivered on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated. Here are three insights we can glean from the words in MLK’s speech that will embolden our students to be makers of their own destiny, and writers of their own fates because this message seems to be made “for a time such as this”:

“The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

Our students are facing unprecedented amounts of information, much of it disturbing and complex; they are jaded at a young age. I asked my students recently what they think when they see a headline come across the news or a banner on their phones. “I always wonder if it is fake news,” John said. “I wonder what is wrong,” Dena chimed in. It is incumbent on teachers to make sure that students can discern what and whom to trust in all the current “confusion all around.” For example, Listenwise, an SML partner, has "How to Spot Fake News and Teach Students How to Be Educated News Consumers" and this great webinar to assist teachers with this giant task. PBS NewsHour Extra, also an SML partner, has prepared "How to Teach Your Students About Fake News."

As teachers, we need to help students understand that though it might be a dark time in our country, there are people who are fighting for their rights and shining brightly to demand truth in reporting.

“And another reason that I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them.” 

I’ll be the first to say that being a parent and teacher at this moment in time is particularly unsettling. Recent conversations in my homeroom and at my dinner table have been about net neutrality, transgender bathrooms, and what the phrases "alt-right" and "racial supremacy" really mean. Though I hate to have to engage in these conversations in the first place, I think back to my own childhood and the lack of conversation about “real” issues, as my parents and teachers protected us from “adult” conversations. It is my hope, however, that by involving students and my own kids in “grappling” with problems in our culture that they will be the force to change the future.

“But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.” 

If this quote about the true greatness of America doesn’t give you chills, I don’t know what will. Martin Luther King’s “Mountaintop” speech was calling on African-Americans to “vote with their feet” and boycott white businesses that were practicing unsafe and unfair labor practices or discriminating against African-Americans. He reminded them to “always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal.” Though King was practical in the moment, he also spoke with resignation and true belief in the future of the youth, as “it doesn’t matter” what happened to him because he knew what they could accomplish. Within 24 hours, Martin Luther King would be dead, but not before reminding his audience that it was students in the 1960s sit-ins at lunch counters who “were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

In today’s tumultuous political climate, it is important to remind our students of their collective voice and demonstrative power, and to use the stories of American heroes to inspire them to go “back to the great wells of democracy” and find a way to be the stars in the “darkness.” This Martin Luther King Day, tell his story, and tether it to the young stars in your classroom whom we are equipping to “grapple with the problems.” Be bold and help your students see: “This means something. There is a message for me.