Martin Luther King Jr. and Common: I Have a Dream

By Nancy Barile on January 17, 2011
  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

Today is Martin Luther King Day, and beyond the fact that they get a day off from school, I'm wondering if my students know much about the man who worked so hard to advance freedom in this country.

Many students know of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and most have probably studied it at some point in their academic careers. But has King's dream been achieved? How far have we come towards reaching the goals set out in Martin Luther King's speech?

 

"I Have a Dream" Comparing and Contrasting Exercise

A great way of exploring these questions is to examine King's speech side by side with rapper Common's song, "I Have a Dream." Many students are familiar with this song, which was featured on the Freedom Writers soundtrack. Produced by Will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas, the song actually samples portions of King's speech.

Students should view the video and the text of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The speech is also included in Historic Speeches of African Americans edited by Warren J. Halliburton, a book that also includes a very good student guide. Common's song can easily be downloaded from iTunes or from the Freedom Writers CD. Listening to both, however, is crucial for the exercise.

 

The Rhetorical Triangle

This is the perfect lesson to explain the rhetorical triangle to students:Rhetorical Triangle

The rhetorical triangle is based on Aristotle's finding that a good persuasive speech should offer three appeals to the audience: ethos, which reflects the credibility of the speaker and the trust the audience would place in him or her; logos, which is the logical appeal; and pathos, the appeal to emotions.

 

The Speech

Martin Luther King's speech is a wonderfully explorable piece of rhetoric. As a rhetor, King's ethos is unshakable. The speech is almost poetic; its logos is infallible, and its pathos is heartbreakingly powerful. Students should be readily able to point out the language that supports each one of these claims. For students who may have trouble with this higher level analysis, "The Power to Persuade" breaks down the process for them, pointing out the specific language that accomplishes King's goals. 

The Song

Common's song, on the other hand, should provide students with a few challenges. Common is a rapper who has received a great deal of critical acclaim, but he's also managed to be commercially successful — it's not always easy to do both. He has always been a socially-conscious rapper, which adds to his credibility, and he did grow up on the South Side of Chicago. The lyrics to "I Have a Dream" describe a chaotic setting where "struggle is my address," "where pain and crack lives," and "gunshots comin' from sounds of Blackness." However, Common wasn't actually as down and out on the streets as his song might make you think. Common's mother was an educator with a doctorate degree, and his father was a former ABA basketball player who later became a youth counselor. Students can explore Common's background further to determine how strong Common's ethos actually is.

Common's logos can be debated. The use of the sample of MLK's speech is certainly an attempt to support the song's premise in a logical and consistent way. But it is Common's pathos that is the most compelling. Students should have no problem pointing out metaphors such as "dark clouds seem to follow me," and "I walk with a boulder on my shoulder" that strive to tap into the emotions of listeners, making them angry, sad, or hopeful at various points in the song.

 

Comparing and Contrasting the Speech and the Song

Comparing and contrasting the song with the speech should prove an instructive and fruitful exercise for students. What was MLK's dream and what is Common's?  Are they the same?  Does Common blame the same obstacles that MLK did?  It is here that students will have to do the most analysis. While Common does, indeed, blame the color of his skin for many of his problems — "Born to the Black list, told I'm below average, a life with no cabbage," he also points out that there are other forces at work standing in the way of his dream. These forces, students will discover, are alcohol and the lure of the street. Common also questions the influence of rap music: "Rap music in the 'hood played a fatherly role," but he's "tryna make it from a gangsta to a godlier role."  

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Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and Common's "I Have a Dream" song both end on a hopeful note. Yes, MLK's speech is a thorough and passionate call for equality. And while Common's song shows how far we've come, he also points out that there is a great deal of work that needs to be done. For Common, he'll start that work with himself: "I wrote a letter just to better my soul." Even so, his song enables anyone who listens to it to realize that achieving the dream needs to be the focus for everyone: blacks, whites, the individual, the group.

Conclusion

My students enjoyed this analysis, and while their findings were similar, their conclusions turned out to be extremely varied. Some students felt that Common's song echoed the dreams and call for action that Martin Luther King expressed. Others, however, felt that the song was exploitative of one of the greatest speeches of all time, and that Common and Will.i.am merely lifted the speech into the song to sell more CDs. Despite the differing opinions, the road to analyzing the speech and song is incredibly enlightening, and it is one that effectively reveals and celebrates the power of the language.

For more about Martin Luther King, the book March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World by Dr. Christine King Farris, Martin Luther King's sister, is an excellent firsthand account of the day King gave his historic speech. Scholastic.com also has plenty of resources to help students understand the legacy of Martin Luther King, including SMART Board activities, historical background, lesson plans, and booklists.

Comments

What a great lesson... captivating, intellectually stimulating and moving! Not only will your students have a deeper appreciation for Dr. King but also put those critical thinking skills to good use.

Thanks, Jenny! I think this lesson really made my students think, and it helped them to reconnect to MLK's legacy.

There is so much positive energy and love in this. I am so encouraged to know that this kind of thing is going on in our nation's schools. This is beautiful!

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