Teaching MLK is Harder Than You Think

With Martin Luther King Jr. Day coming up and Black History month around the corner, we at OHC think it’s a good time to talk about the man Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy. What better way to do that than to hear his very words from sixty years ago?

MLK is a civil rights figure well known for his eloquence in speeches and dedication to nonviolence. The public often considers him as an immutable figure, unchanging in his craft across his lifetime. In reality, King was a maligned figure in his hey-day.

King was a pioneer of nonviolent conflict, perfecting his technique and message across multiple failed demonstrations in the 1950s and early 1960s. As the writers of This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century point out, his intention was “’to create a situation so crisis-packed’ that the too-often-ignored boil of segregation would be open and all of its ‘pus-flowing ugliness’ exposed ‘to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion.’” Such radical methods put him in conflict with the most powerful people of 1950s America.

King also held many policy positions considered radical even today, such as guaranteed basic incomes and greater unionization. He understood “that too much of what we think of as ‘politics’ is at least as deeply connected to culture. It’s culture that responds to disruption; it’s human hearts that are captured by the drama of disruption.” His solution was to develop a nonviolent model, one that proved “turning the other cheek turns out not to be a weak stance,” but rather a “jiu-jitsu of unearned suffering” that motivated Americans to support the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

This complicated legacy of MLK can be found throughout his speeches. We’ve chosen several audio speech excerpts from different times of his career to read and/or listen to with your students. We’ve included the text transcripts where available. While doing so, ask your students the following questions:

  • How does MLK characterize America in the speeches? Is his optimistic or pessimistic? What does he think are the problems America faced in the 50s and 60s?
  • What does MLK believe is a unifying message or theme all Americans can come together for? What are messages or parts of American life he believes divide us?
  • IF MLK were to give some of these speeches today, how would he be received? How is his legacy carried out in recent current events?

Speeches of MLK

Paul’s Letter to American Christians, audio, text here (1956)

I Have a Dream, audio, text here (1963)

Letter from Birmingham Jail, audio, text here (1963)

The Other America, audio, text here (1967)

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, audio, text here (1967)



Blog Image Citation: Trikosko, Marion S, photographer. Martin Luther King speaks at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol about the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016646516/.

Posted January 10, 2023
Topics: Education

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