On November 2, 1983, Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a federal holiday when Ronald Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill into law. But this day was a long time in the making and only became a reality after a 15-year campaign to officially celebrate King’s legacy nationwide.

Martin Luther King Jr. day is a perfect opportunity to teach about Dr. King’s legacy and role in the civil rights movement—and Flocabulary’s I Have A Dream speech analysis FREE lesson plan is a great place to start. King was a prolific speaker and writer who left behind a treasure trove of speeches, sermons, letters, and essays that served as a window into King’s mind and evolving views. These primary sources are ideal for in-class analysis from both a content and style perspective. In this blog post, you will find a lesson inviting students to connect style and content while analyzing King’s legendary I Have A Dream speech. Students will then incorporate some of King’s language and rhetorical moves into their writing as they outline their vision for the world.

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How did Martin Luther King Day become a national holiday?

The first appeal to honor King with a holiday came just four days after his assassination in April 1968. Michigan Congressman John Conyers proposed a bill to create a new federal holiday, but it was largely ignored. John Conyers Jr., one of the few Black members of Congress, persisted, reintroducing the bill every year alongside the Congressional Black Caucus until 1979. It was during that year, on what would have been King’s 50th birthday, that the bill finally came to a vote in the House. Despite a petition with 300,000 signatures in favor of the holiday and the support of President Jimmy Carter, the bill was rejected.

As the ’70s gave way to the early ’80s, public support for the holiday grew as the Congressional Black Caucus collected more than 6 million signatures and Stevie Wonder released a hit song, “Happy Birthday,” about King. By the 20th anniversary of King’s I Have a Dream speech, the bill made it back to the floor for a vote. This time the bill passed with a 78-22 vote; Reagan immediately signed the bill into law.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in DC
Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial. Photo by Robert Brammer.

Although the first federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day was celebrated in 1986, it took nearly 15 more years for the holiday to become official in all 50 states. Several southern states later combined Martin Luther King Jr.  Day with holidays celebrating Confederate general Robert E. Lee. In other states, like Arizona, debates about whether to celebrate MLK Day went back and forth for years before finally being settled. By 2000, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. was recognized in every state. Today, the holiday is fully ingrained in American life—and a perfect opportunity to invite students to review King’s legacy and analyze his words in the classroom.

Who was Martin Luther King Jr.?

Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister and civil rights leader born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. He grew up in the Jim Crow South, attending segregated schools throughout his childhood. The son of a minister, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. He graduated from Morehouse College and then studied theology in Pennsylvania before earning a doctorate in theology from Boston University. In 1955, shortly after King was hired as a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, the Montgomery Bus Boycotts were sparked by Rosa Parks. King helped organize the 381-day boycott—a jumping-off point for his life as a public figure and civil rights activist. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, King began promoting and organizing nonviolent protests across the United States. He traveled more than 6 million miles, leading marches, boycotts, and sit-ins to draw attention to widespread racial injustice in the United States.

By August 1963, King had become one of the most prominent civil rights leaders in the United States. At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he delivered his famous I Have A Dream speech to a crowd of 250,000 people, outlining his vision of racial equality in the United States and the world. In 1964, King became the youngest person to win a Nobel Peace Prize. His work helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, ending segregation in public places and outlawing discrimination in hiring. King also played a part in the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, that garnered support for voting rights for Black Americans and helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s later years

In the latter half of the 1960s, King’s tactics were increasingly questioned by a younger, more radical wing of the civil rights movement. They believed he was too accommodating to those in power in the United States. Still, King continued his work as an activist, fighting racism, opposing the Vietnam War, and advocating for poor Americans. In 1968, while visiting Memphis, Tennessee, to support striking city workers, King was shot and killed on the balcony of his hotel room. Following his death at the age of 39, King’s reputation grew. To this day, he is remembered for his critical role in the civil rights movement and his eloquent, clear-eyed speeches and letters. Each year, on the third Monday of January, we celebrate his legacy and consider his impact on American society.

Bringing Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy into the classroom

One of the best ways to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. is to revisit his most famous speeches and letters. Primary sources like these are a terrific opportunity for students to not only bear witness to a historical figure’s words and ideas firsthand but also to analyze the content and style of a speech or piece of writing. The following speech analysis assignment will guide students through closely analyzing King’s most famous address.

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In this I Have A Dream speech analysis lesson, students will experience both the text and audio of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech while learning about King’s key contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. They’ll define and explain keywords and phrases from the speech, including examples of figurative language. The lesson culminates with students writing their original lyrics about their dreams for the world using language from King’s speech and their own figurative language.

I Have A Dream Speech Analysis Lesson Plan

Lesson plan information

  • Time: Two class periods:
  • Grade level: Recommended for Grades 3 to 8
  • Standards Alignment: This speech analysis assignment is aligned to these CCSS standards and all 50 state standards. Find the alignment to your state standards.

Objectives

In Flocabulary’s I Have A Dream speech analysis lesson, students will be able to…

  • Describe key events in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and King’s major contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Explain the meaning of keywords and phrases in King’s I Have a Dream speech, including examples of figurative language.
  • Write an original rap about a personal dream for the world using quotations from King’s speech and original figurative language.

Class and student output

  • Class discussion about King’s life and contributions to the Civil Rights Movement
  • I Have A Dream speech analysis focusing on word choice, allusion, and figurative language
  • Original raps or poetry about personal dreams for the world that include quotations from King’s speech and original figurative language

Sequence

Day 1

1. Play the Martin Luther King Jr. Flocabulary video. Turn on Discuss Mode and play the video again. Discuss Mode will ask questions that check for understanding and prompt discussion about King’s life and contributions.

Martin Luther King Jr. & Leadership lesson video

2. After discussing the final Discussion Mode prompt, click pause on the video (around 2:55). This is right before the extended clip of the I Have a Dream speech. Pass out the Martin Luther King Jr. printable activity, which includes excerpts from the I Have a Dream speech on the first page. Give students an I Have A Dream speech summary to provide additional context.

Martin Luther King Jr. I Have a Dream analysis printable activity page 2

3. Press play on the video to re-watch the clips from the speech. Students can follow along in the text. (NOTE: The video clip starts on the 5th paragraph down on the page. The clip skips a few sentences provided in the text.)

4. As you watch, point out the lines from the song “My Country ’Tis of Thee” and the spiritual “Free at Last” that King quotes toward the end of the speech. As a class, discuss why King may have included lines from other texts in his speech.

5. As a class or in groups, complete the top part of page 2 of the activity. Ask for suggestions of words or phrases from the speech that stood out to students. Using context clues, generate definitions or explanations of these words and phrases.

6. Review the meaning of figurative language, which means something other than its literal meaning and expresses ideas in vivid and imaginative ways. As a class or in groups, complete the bottom part of page 2 of the activity, explaining the meaning of some of King’s figurative language.

7. As a class, discuss why King may have used figurative language in his speech. What does this add to the speech?

8. Tell students that tomorrow, they will follow King’s lead by writing their own lyrics about their dreams for the United States or the world. They can start brainstorming what they’d like to write their rhymes about.

Day 2

Martin Luther King Jr. I Have a Dream that one day printable activity

1. Start by playing the Martin Luther King Jr. video again to refresh students’ memories of the I Have a Dream speech.

2. Have students individually complete page 3 of the activity. Students should first write their dream at the top. They should then return to the text of King’s speech and their I Have A Dream Speech analysis from day one to identify words or phrases they’d like to include in their raps, just as King included quotations from other texts. These should be words and phrases that relate to their dream somehow. Encourage students to feel free to choose words and phrases other than the ones you defined as a class.

3. Have students develop at least one example of figurative language to include in their lyrics. They can start by writing a line with literal language and then brainstorm how to revise this line using a simile, metaphor, personification, or another literary device.

Martin Luther King Jr. speech analysis assignment on Lyric Lab

4. Have students write at least six lines explaining their dream and what needs to be done to achieve it. They should include the words/phrases and figurative language they identified. Students can use Lyric Lab to write their lyrics or help them develop rhymes. If you or your students haven’t used Lyric Lab before, click “Lyric Lab” on the left panel next to the video on the lesson page.

5. Invite students to share their lyrics with the class. Have students identify the quotations from King’s speech and the examples of figurative language in each other’s songs.

Wrap-Up & Extensions

  1. Replay the clips of King’s speech in the video, and ask students why they think certain images and video clips were chosen to go along with the speech. Have students imagine the song they wrote will have images added to it. Ask students to brainstorm the types of images they would include.
  2. Have students complete the Read and Respond activity accompanying the video. In Read and Respond, students will read passages of informational text, including one that provides an “I Have A Speech Dream summary and context for the speech, to learn more about King’s life and achievements, and they’ll answer text-dependent questions about these passages.

Use Flocabulary to teach beyond the I Have A Dream speech

The lesson above focuses on I Have A Dream, but King’s prowess as a public speaker goes well beyond his most famous address—and his speeches resonate on more days than Martin Luther King Jr. Day. If your class enjoyed experiencing, analyzing, and reacting to King’s words, this list of King’s most memorable speeches will provide ample material for further viewing and analysis.

And for those classes that want to go deeper into the civil rights movement, be sure to check out Flocabulary’s videos on Civil Rights, the Voting Rights Act & SelmaFannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, John Lewis, Yuri Kochiyama, and Jackie Robinson.

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