“Early evening, April 4, shot rang out in the Memphis sky …”
I was working as a substitute in a middle school one day in February, and the teacher, it being during Black History Month, had left an assignment for her students to read excerpts from Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
The students, as students tend to do, were becoming more interested in talking to each other than in doing the assignment, so I asked if they would like me to read it to them.
I am, I should note, a decent reader.
They were enthralled. They’d probably never actually heard a recording of the speech, and you can tell that having the words actually come alive, actually be a speech, instead of just another reading assignment, let them feel the power and emotion of King’s words.
Unfortunately, their reaction caused me to get a little overconfident.
The excerpts in the book were good, but it left out some parts that I felt were worth including — the “Free at last” part, for example, and the titular “I have a dream” parts, particularly the “one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” section.
So for the next period, I offered to read again, but this time, instead of reading the excerpts in their book, I looked up the full text online.
This was, arguably, a mistake.
I was able to keep the students enthralled with the excerpts, but the full speech proved to be too long for their attention span, and I had to balance trying to maintain discipline without losing the flow of the speech.
And, I’ll admit, at one point, it made me sad. I’m reading this historic speech to a very predominately African American classroom of students, and I’m having to deal with, for example, one student taking off his shoe and making another smell it as I’m trying to read. And it just seemed — disrespectful. Not to me, but to King, and his followers and peers who changed the nation. Show him the courtesy of listening to the words that helped change your life, you know?
But, then I wondered — what would he have thought? How would King have reacted to see African American students so disinterested in his fight? To be acting out in that way instead?
And, really, part of me wonders if maybe, just maybe, the fact that 49 years after he gave the speech it could be so taken for granted would bring him a little happiness. That maybe, just maybe, that’s kind of what he was trying to accomplish.