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Lesson Plan #:AELP-LIT0004
Author: Mary Barton, English instructor
School or Affiliation: Bishop Carroll High School, Wichita, KS
Date: April 1996

Grade Level(s): 9, 10, 11, 12


  • Language Arts/Literature

Description: The following is designed as an independent lesson to foster critical thinking over Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech.

Concepts: The lesson has individual sections divided into vocabulary development, rhetorical structures (figures of speech), understanding the speech, relating to the speech, and an optional opportunity for students to record the speech.

Background Information: Attached to the beginning of the lesson is background information on the civil rights movement, including Dr. King’s leadership role, in order to familiarize students with the context in which the speech was written. (I usually run off a copy for each student so that they can refer back to this information as they think through the lesson.)

Materials and Procedures: Of course, the lesson can be copied as a whole or with only desired sections extracted. (For example, some teachers may choose only to have students tape record the speech using the accompanying guidelines as a means of encouraging oral presentations.) Teachers would also need a copy of Dr. King’s speech. (This lesson is based on an abridged version which includes the first two paragraphs and the last two-thirds of the speech beginning with …There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’)

Lesson: I Have a Dream

This speech, which has become one of the most recognized symbols of the civil rights movement, was written more than three decades ago as America struggled with the problems of how to create racial equality for all of her citizens. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered the speech on August 28, 1963, to more than 200,000 people gathered during a massive demonstration before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Called the March on Washington, the demonstration was organized on the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to call attention to the wrongs suffered by African Americans and to push for federal legislation to bring about change.

Before the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, racial discrimination was deeply imbedded in American society. The reality of life for the great majority of African Americans meant that they lived with gross inequities in housing, employment, education, medical services, and public accommodations. Often they were denied the right to vote and faced great injustices within the legal system.

Segregation was a way of life. Most urban blacks, particularly in the South, lived in isolated tenements because white landlords refused them rent. Blacks had little access to good jobs, finding work mainly in positions of service to white employers. Black children attended separate, inferior schools. The result of being denied both employment and educational opportunities was that the great majority of African American families lived in poverty, with nearly 75% earning less than $3,000 a year in 1950. In addition, Southern blacks were denied admittance to such public facilities as hospitals, restaurants, theaters, motels, and parks. Blacks were even denied the use of public restrooms and drinking fountains marked with For Whites Only signs. When separate public accommodations for blacks were provided, they were usually inferior in quality and poorly maintained. At establishments in which practicality dictated that blacks and whites share the same facilities, blacks were relegated by law to the back of buses and trains and to the balconies of movies houses and courtrooms.

Worse, many African Americans were even denied the right to participate in America’s political process. They were kept from voting by state laws, polltaxes, reading tests, and even beatings by local police. Unlawful acts of violence against blacks, such as those perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan, were ignored by the much of Southern society, and African Americans could expect little help from the judicial system. In fact, instances of police intimidation and brutality were all too common.

Change came slowly. Embittered Southern whites carried distrust learned during the years of Reconstruction following the Civil War. However, in the late 1940’s following World War II (when America had fought for freedom and democracy abroad and therefore felt compelled to make good on these promises at home), the federal government began to pass laws against racial discrimination. The United States military was integrated for the first time, and new laws and court rulings prohibited segregation in schools, government buildings, and public transportation. However, many of these laws met with bitter opposition in the South or were simply ignored. When members of the African American community tried to break through old barriers, they were often threatened or beaten and, in some cases, killed. Likewise, black homes and churches were sometimes burned or bombed.

It was within this atmosphere that Martin Luther King, Jr., rose as a prominent leader in the civil rights movement. The son of a Baptist minister who was himself ordained, he was inspired by both Christian ideals and India’s Mohandas K. Gandhi’s philosophies of nonviolent resistance to peaceable confront injustice. King first came into the national spotlight when he organized the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott—-during which time he was jailed, his home burned, and his life threatened. The result, however, was the mandate from the Supreme Court outlawing segregation on public transportation, and King emerged as a respected leader and the voice of nonviolent protest. He led marches, sit-ins, demonstrations, and black voter-registration drives throughout the South until his assassination in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.

In 1964 King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the civil rights movement. Both Americans and the international community recognized King’s contributions in overcoming civil rights abuses without allowing the struggle to erupt into a blood bath. It was King’s leadership that held the movement together with a dedication to nonviolent change. Many believe that King’s skillful guidance and powerful oratory skills kept the South out of a second civil war, this time between the races. King led the civil rights movement to meet each act of violence, attack, murder, or slander with a forgiving heart, a working hand, and a hopeful dream for the future.

Note: Answer all questions on separate notebook paper.

I. Vocabulary Development

  1. Find three words in the background information on the previous page about which you are unsure and look up their meanings. Write the definitions.
  2. Read Dr. King’s speech. Find seven words about which you are unsure and look up their meanings. Write the definitions.

II. Rhetorical Structure: Figures of Speech

Certain rhetorical devices called figures of speech (similes, metaphors, allusions, alliteration, etc.) are used in both poetry and prose to make ideas more memorable and forceful. For centuries speakers and writers have known that such well said devices affect listeners and readers in powerful ways.

  • In the guide to literary terms in the back of your textbook, find and write the definitions of each of the following: alliteration, allusion, metaphor, and simile.
  • Five score years ago, the opening phrase of King’s speech, is an allusion to what or whom? Why was this an appropriate and strong way for King to begin his speech?
  • King’s speech contains other allusions in addition to the one with which he opens his speech. Find an allusion to the Declaration of Independence and the Bible.
  • Find an example of alliteration in King’s speech.
  • Find an example of a metaphor.
  • Find an example of a simile.
  • In the second paragraph, King says that the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.
    • What type of figure of speech is this?
    • These words bring up strong images of slavery. Why would this be an effective method of moving his audience?
    • What inference was King making about the progress of African Americans to enter the mainstream of American life in the one hundred years which followed the end of slavery?
  • Another figure of speech is called an anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence, verse, or paragraph. Besides the famous I have a dream phrase, find two other examples of anaphoras.
  • List at least two possible effects upon King’s audience of repeating the phrase, I have a dream.
  • Nearly every line of King’s speech is filled with powerful images, or mental pictures, many created by using figures of speech. Images help audiences to feel what speakers/writers want them to feel, help them remember what they have read or heard, and help them understand difficult material. Write a well-developed paragraph telling which of King’s images you find most powerful and appealing and explain why this image had meaning for you.
  • III. Understanding the Dream

  • Write a paragraph summarizing King’s dream in your own words.
  • What are some of the specific acts of injustice against African Americans which King cites in his speech?
  • Besides the Declaration of Independence and the Bible, King cites the American dream as a source for his own dream. What is the American dream? Discuss this concept with friends and family members and then write a composite definition for this commonly used term.
  • Near the end of his speech, King names many different states. Why do you think he did this?
  • I Have a Dream was a persuasive speech meant to convey to King’s audience the need for change and encourage them to work for federal legislation to help end racial discrimination. If you had been in the vast crowd that day, do you think you would have been moved my King’s speech? Why or why not?
  • IV. Relating to the Dream

  • What is your definition of racism?
  • The civil rights movement was met with much opposition, from Southern governors and other elected officials to cross-burning members of the Ku Klux Klan. Unfortunately, Civil Rights opponents sometimes turned to violence against black leaders and members of the black community.
    • Why do you think extreme right-wing organizations such as the Klan would chose violence as a means to fight against the civil rights movement, even though their actions enraged the rest of the country and gained sympathy for the cause of Southern blacks?
    • Why do you think the black community withstood such violent attacks without responding with their own violent retaliations?
  • Today’s skinheads share the same radical right-wing philosophies and views supporting white supremacy and segregation of the races that had been held by Hitler during World War II and the Klan during the civil rights movement. Do you think today’s skinheads are dangerous? Why or why not?
  • King was assassinated for his work in civil rights. A quotation from the Bible on the memorial at his gravesite reads, Behold the dreamer. Let us slay him, and we will see what will become of his dream. What do you think has become of King’s dream? Write two paragraphs: one telling in what ways the dream has been fulfilled and one telling what yet remains to be accomplished.
  • V. Recording the Dream: Optional, Extra Credit

    Tape record King’s I Have a Dream speech, following these requirements:

  • Introduction: Present a brief introduction to the speech which should last no longer than one minute. a. You may use any of the material in this assignment as a reference for your opening remarks, but your introduction must be in your own words.

    b. Provide your audience with enough background information so that they can understand the context in which this speech was given. Strive to answer the five W’s–who, what, when, where, and why.

  • Oral Presentation a. Your expression should communicate the full meaning of King’s message through appropriate voice inflection, tone, clarity, and rate of speech. Your interpretation should convey the full power of the speech’s underlying imagery.

    b. Phrasing of the speech should show that you understand the meaning King intended, including the relationship of one sentence to another and the  importance of punctuation by observing appropriate pauses.

    c. You should pronounce all words correctly.