February 8, 2023

If You Really Want to Honor Dr. King…

Author’s note – Monday, January 21, 2008.

I originally published this in The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate in January 2007, but alas it is even more appropriate this years when Senators Obama and Clinton are dissing each other over Dr. King’s legacy. Each candidate is part of Dr. King’s “dream,” but the divisiveness of the issue proves how poorly educated most Americans are about modern history. Just today, an African American Huffington Post columnist carelessly reduced Dr. King’s life, work and sacrifice to the few paltry sentences fed to us by the textbook industry.

This epidemic of ignorance can only be cured by educators!

This Monday is Dr. Martin Luther King’s Birthday and February is African American History Month. Both occasions were Dr. Kingcreated as a way of honoring the sacrifice of Dr. King and the contributions of millions of African Americans before him. It is a somber occasion in which to confront the hideous crimes of institutionalized racism and to celebrate the achievements of people who overcame insurmountable odds to enjoy the unfulfilled promises of the United States Constitution.

Schools are the natural setting to inform students of our history, warts and all. Yet we tell so few historical stories and most of those narratives are watered down until they become fairy tales and meaningless happy talk. Face it, ______ (Black, Women’s, Latino…) History Months are necessary because the information presented to students is so biased, simplistic, incomplete and often times just plain wrong.

Please take a moment to answer the following questions:

What do you know about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr?

What do your school social studies texts say about his life and work?

How much class time is dedicated to the life and times of Dr. King?

Have you done any independent reading or research into the life of Dr. King?

Why did Dr. King speak in Washington that day in August 1963?

What was the event called?*

Was Dr. King the only speaker?

Why wasn’t’ President Kennedy at the speech? Wasn’t he Dr. King’s friend?

Who was A. Phillip Randolph?

Who is John Lewis?

Who was Bayard Rustin?

Where was Malcolm X that day?

Many teachers use the King holiday as an opportunity to tell students “all about” Dr. King. “He had a dream…” They use resources like these fabulous materials recommended for teachers on the web.



Note: I highly recommend you click the links to see the garbage used to honor one of the greatest men who ever lived.

You can’t teach about Dr. King without the “I Have a Dream Speech,” right? Textbooks and various multimedia products have sliced, diced and filleted a 30-second perky excerpt from Dr. King’s speech.

Since students will be unlikely to be introduced to any of Dr. King’s other rhetorical output, might I suggest that you play the entire speech for your students. Of course you should listen to it yourself beforehand. The entire speech runs approximately 17 minutes.

You may find a COMPLETE video clip of the ENTIRE “Dream” speech, alongside the unabridged transcription of the speech at the following sites:



So, what do you think? Do the content, intent and emotion of the whole speech feel differently from the one-paragraph textbook version?

In an age when educators profess profound concern about information literacy why not discuss why the entire message of the speech has been hidden by curricular omission. That and the substance of Dr. King’s actual speech should generate a few year’s worth of curriculum alone.

Schools are the natural setting to inform students of our history, warts and all. Yet we tell so few historical stories and most of those narratives are watered down until they become fairy tales and meaningless happy talk.

On this Martin Luther King Birthday National Holiday, I give thanks to the World Wide Web and YouTube for ensuring that future generations of children will be free to learn history aside from the standardized content being currently delivered to them.

Supplemental Resources:

*The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963.

Why do you suppose “jobs” gets left out of the classroom discussion?

Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.

One thought on “If You Really Want to Honor Dr. King…

  1. Thanks Gary. I really enjoyed this article with the great resources. I plan to share this blog with the teachers that I work with here in south central Nebraska!

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