Last Friday, before the long weekend, I wrote in the homework section on my board, “MLK Day Monday! For Tuesday, read pgs…” Throughout the day several students in each class asked what MLK was. When other students or I told them those were Martin Luther King’s initials, most students said, “Oh yeah,” but a few added, “Wait, who is that again?”

I thought about this throughout the long weekend and decided to devote some time during Tuesday’s class to the words and work of Dr. King. I started with a quote from his “I Have a Dream…” Speech in 1963:

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

We talked about that line from the Declaration of Independence (which they had learned about recently in social studies class), what it meant, when it was written, and whom it excluded. We talked about how long after that line was written that slavery was abolished, about the rise of legal segregation and Jim Crow Laws in the South and the long struggle to end those. Then we watched a few minutes of the speech itself. It was an interesting environment to discuss the vision of desegregation King describes in his speech. My school is very diverse racially, and I think this allowed students to reflect on that positively and in more depth than usual.

Students were struck by how huge the audience was in the March on Washington, how triumphant the tone of the speech was. I felt like they got to see what a real social movement looked like in those days. Then we watched a few minutes of Dr. King’s final speech in 1968. We talked about the triumphs of the civil rights movement, but also the constant struggle–the fact that there were regular citizens as well as people in positions of power who supported the civil rights movement and others who opposed the vision of MLK and his supporters, which ultimately resulted in his death. Students wanted to know more about that, so we projected a google search and read together the account of the assassination.

We talked about the response of Americans when Martin Luther King was killed–the devastation and anger–and the role of musicians, such as James Brown, who began giving free public concerts to get people to stop rioting and help sooth their pain. One of my students shared that her grandfather had been a civil rights activist who worked with Dr. King. She even showed us a picture she had on her phone of a photograph of him after being arrested for protesting.

Students were very interested in the discussions and video footage. It visibly sparked something in them. What was meant to be a half-period presentation and discussion easily turned into an entire period. It seemed that everyone had learned something about MLK at some point in elementary school, but now were able to think about the meaning of his life and work on a different level, as seventh graders developing critical thinking and social consciousness.

It also occurred to me that I had not had the opportunity to learn about the civil rights movement in school at all–until college, and at that point it was by choice. In high school, I did learn about it on my own from media–movies, music, books, etc, and from my parents and grandmother who had some first hand experience with it. It was not part of my formal education, because we never “had time for it” chronologically in history classes.

Seeing my students’ interest in Tuesday’s class made me hopeful about this generation finding their own way toward making positive change in this country/world. We certainly need social leaders with vision and the courage to stand up for their beliefs.

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