Title:King in the Classroom

Author: Karen Doss Bowman
Date Published: April 26, 2022

no, no we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream-- mlk

Few Americans would associate Martin Luther King Jr. with baseball. But Georgetown history professor Chandra Manning kicks off her course, Baseball and American Society, by having the class read and analyze one of the civil rights icon’s inspiring speeches.

“My approach is to use the text to introduce themes of the class,” says Manning, explaining that her course uses baseball as a framework to examine U.S. social, cultural, and political history during and after the Industrial Revolution. “Dr. King’s speeches include issues such as equity and justice, violence and nonviolence. These themes also show up in the history of baseball when we talk about segregation in the major leagues and eventually breaking the color barrier.”

Manning, who joined Georgetown’s faculty in August 2005, was inspired to incorporate King speeches in all her spring semester classes—including Civil War and Emancipation, Biography and History, and What Is U.S. Citizenship?—after participating in the campus-wide Teach the Speech teach-in. The annual event brings together faculty, staff, and students from the Main, Medical, Law, School of Continuing Studies, and Qatar campus communities to reflect on a selected King speech and share ideas about ways to integrate the text into the classroom.

In Manning’s classes, King’s words inspire deep thinking about racial justice and also serve as a valuable tool for teaching students the technique of close reading, which involves identifying key phrases and word choices, examining structure, and looking for metaphors and imagery in historical documents. Manning uses the opportunity to talk about Georgetown’s Teach the Speech event and the value of a shared experience across disciplines.

“My hope is that they come to understand that university education is a collective endeavor,” Manning says. “This effort can help students see their education as more than the sum of its parts—in other words, to see a whole to their education that transcends more than just four or five classes each semester or adding up the credits to graduate. It’s about entering into a life of inquiry.”

students in classroom

Facing Racism and Inequality

The most recent Teach the Speech event, held virtually on Jan. 11, 2022, spotlighted King’s signature “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963. Keynote speakers were Veronica Williams (C’23), an American studies major with a minor in psychology; Virginia State Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), who has served for 15 years in the Virginia General Assembly; and Neonu Jewell (L’04), a Critical Race Theory Fellow at the African American Policy Forum. The event is sponsored by Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS), the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching, and Service (CSJ), the Doyle Engaging Difference Program, and the Division of Student Affairs.

Teach the Speech is part of Georgetown President John J. DeGioia’s MLK Initiative: Let Freedom Ring! program that honors the enduring legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through a series of events on campus and in the greater Washington, D.C., community. These activities—which include a service of remembrance and panel discussions on racial justice topics and the March on Washington—reflect the university’s Jesuit values of contemplation in action, care of the whole person, and being people for others.

The university also partners each year with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to host the Let Freedom Ring Celebration, featuring special guest artists and the Let Freedom Ring Ensemble led by award-winning composer/lyricist, producer, musical director, and cultural curator Nolan Williams Jr. During the event, President DeGioia presents Georgetown’s John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award to an emerging leader from Washington, D.C.

The inaugural Teach the Speech event, held in 2013, focused on King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The first teach-in took place in 2017. Since its inception, Teach the Speech has brought dynamic speakers to campus, including Ibram X. Kendi, award-winning author of How to Be an Antiracist; environmental and climate justice activist Catherine Coleman Flowers; and the Rev. Brad Braxton, ordained Baptist minister and educator, and founder of the Open Church of Maryland.

For Georgetown faculty, staff, and students who are unfamiliar with King’s speeches, Teach the Speech offers a chance for close examination of his ideals and vision. Though King died more than 50 years ago, his messages are still relevant today, says Patricia Grant, senior associate dean of the undergraduate program at the McDonough School of Business.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for the whole campus community to look inward and think about the enduring lessons that Dr. King’s messages are giving us for today,” says Grant, who served as co-chair for a prior Let Freedom Ring! initiative. “It’s paramount to make sure that his words and his legacy are an integrated feature of everything that we do at the university. That his messages reverberate and find residence within our hearts, spurring us to actions that promote an equitable society.”

As Georgetown continues the long-term process of understanding and responding to its role in the injustice of slavery—including the sale of 272 enslaved people in 1838 by the Maryland Province of Jesuits—the university-wide focus on King’s message is the right step toward healing, says Marilyn McMorrow, RSCJ, an associate teaching professor in the Department of Government.

“As a society, we have been trying to face structural racism as America’s original sin, and one in which Georgetown was complicit,” McMorrow says. “We’re enmeshed in structural racism, but it seems that in some parts of American society, we’re finally trying to take the blinders off. What Georgetown is doing with Teach the Speech is an important part of that conversation.”

“This effort can help students see their education as more than the sum of its parts—in other words, to see a whole to their education that transcends more than just four or five classes each semester or adding up the credits to graduate. It’s about entering into a life of inquiry.”

—Chandra Manning

Teaching the Speech

Just as Manning incorporates the teach-in’s selected King speech into her history classroom, faculty across a range of disciplines have found creative ways to teach King’s messages.

For Barbara Leary, omitting King’s speeches in her graduate-level speechwriting course “would be tantamount to instructional malpractice,” she says. By helping students appreciate the “soaring rhetoric and passionate delivery and effective repetition of the phrase, ‘I have a dream,’” Leary touches on the most important aspect of speech- writing: connecting with the audience. One of her assignments requires students to write a speech that would be delivered to an imaginary, hostile audience—one with “wildly diverging views” from the speaker.

“This project illustrates an important technique in speech writing: getting the audience to really imagine what that better world might look like if the solution the speaker is proposing were to come to pass,” says Leary, an adjunct faculty member in the Public Relations & Corporate Communications master’s degree program. “Dr. King was a master of the art and craft of speaking, with an electric delivery, and that way he had of just seizing an audience and bringing them in with the message of hope and inspiration. It’s rare to see that.”

J.R. Osborn, associate professor in the Communication, Culture, and Technology master’s program, uses insights gleaned from Teach the Speech both to meet course objectives and to facilitate a greater understanding among students of King’s impact in the United States and beyond. In his Graphic Design Studies class, for example, graduate students’ key aim is to develop skills for the critical analysis of graphic design, including the ability to visually convey a client’s desired messages. Osborn has students design and produce an item incorporating the entire speech. Additionally, they must include reflections on King’s legacy and an essay describing the rationale for their design choices.

The results have been impressive, Osborn says. Students have created a wide range of products, from brochures, posters, and booklets to T-shirts, album covers, English language teaching guides, and a museum shop gift bag.

“Students have to read the speech and decide the best way to present it, and the range of creative responses has just blown me away,” says Osborn. “I frame the assignment as a lesson in professional design practice, but I also talk to the students about Georgetown’s commitment to encouraging dialogue on campus about Dr. King’s legacy and social justice.”

Osborn says the challenge to incorporate King’s ideas across curricula also has stretched his skills as a teacher and scholar.

“The value of the teach-in is that it helps those of us who are teaching this material to get a broader sense of the context of the speech and its importance,” Osborn says. “In academia there’s often hesitation to teach about things that are outside of our expertise. The teach-in challenges us as professors to say, ‘I might not be a scholar of Martin Luther King Jr., but these discussions are important.’ I’m willing to put my time into learning about Dr. King and sharing that with my students. And the teach-in gives faculty a chance to discuss ideas for assignments and approaches to teaching this material. That gives everyone a sense of how the speech is being used across campus and how King can be relevant across disciplines.”

Participants in the Teach the Speech teach-in sessions often gain new insights and perspectives on King’s message. Laura Bishop describes Teach the Speech as “uplifting and refreshing” for faculty.

“The experience really reminds us of both the purpose of teaching and the purpose of working together on important issues like justice,” says Bishop, associate teaching professor and academic program director for the Kennedy Institute of Ethics.

Bishop still feels inspired thinking back on the 2019 event, which focused on a speech entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” which King delivered at the Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, just days before he was assassinated. The content was particularly relevant for her course Climate Change and Global Justice, and she assigned the speech as reading material for her students.

“I was struck by how the words resonated with the focus of our course and classroom discussions on climate change and global justice,” Bishop says. “Namely, that the impact of our actions and choices would affect other human beings and non-humans around the world both now and into the future, in very deep ways. Dr. King spoke about how the ‘destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation’ of the world. That all of life is interrelated, ‘in an inescapable network of mutuality.’ He was speaking about themes and concerns that are some of the most fundamental in human life.”

Jamie Kralovec, associate director for mission integration at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies, says Teach the Speech offers the campus community “an incredible opportunity to animate our mission of community-engaged learning in service of equity, justice, and the common good.” As a Christian, King drew from his religious heritage to promote the work of social justice and equity. Kralovec says reflecting on King’s words offers new inspiration and hope for today’s challenges.

“Dr. King’s speech is actually a challenging and demand- ing call, issued then but still reverberating today, to work for justice in a multiracial democracy by directly address- ing the roots and effects of structural racism,” Kralovec wrote in a recent blog on Mission in Motion. “As the United States continues to experience social, cultural, and political polarization around persisting racial injustices in all facets of society, MLK’s iconic 1963 speech presents a valuable opportunity to renew the discussion in 2022 and re-commit to tangible actions at Georgetown.”

people holding signs that say "black lives matter"

“It’s paramount to make sure that his words and his legacy are an integrated feature of everything that we do at the university. That his messages reverberate and find residence within our hearts, spurring us to actions that promote an equitable society.”

—Patricia Grant

Reclaiming King’s Dream

Teach the Speech typically focuses on a lesser-known King speech to broaden participants’ knowledge of his work. But the planning committee was inspired this year to select “I Have a Dream” after reading Kendi’s Oct. 14, 2021, article in The Atlantic decrying the “second assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.” The piece condemns exploitation of the iconic speech by politicians and pundits who take King’s words out of context to justify denouncing critical race theory and efforts to facilitate a national dialogue on racism.

“It may seem cliché or obvious to pick this particular text, but we wanted to name that concerted effort to weaponize Dr. King’s words and misrepresent his vision,” says Andria Wisler, CSJ executive director. “We also wanted to lift up critical race theory because it’s being pummeled in the national conversation. In choosing ‘I Have a Dream,’ we invited the Georgetown community to re-engage with King from that place where most of us first learned of him.”

In her reflections during the recent Teach the Speech event, Williams shared that although she was exposed to King’s speeches during her formative years—primarily at church— she doesn’t remember in-depth lessons about Black history in K-12 classes. She challenged her Zoom audience to educate themselves about the Black experience in America and to take bold steps to fight racism.

“Black people and Black history are too often seen as one-dimensional, so much so that it’s treated like we don’t have history or culture,” says Williams, producer of the podcast
“Tea With V,” a member of the University’s inaugural cohort of Campus Ministry’s Black Interfaith Fellowship, and communications and outreach lead for ESCAPE, Georgetown’s first-year retreat program. “Prominent Black figures, even those as massive as Dr. King, are cast as background characters in the story of America … Dr. King encouraged us all to dare to dream and to fight against the forces and systems that want us to stay complacent.”

Reflecting on the core message of King’s 1963 address, Williams says, “With radical hope for the future and a never-ending fire and desire for freedom and justice in his heart, King paints a picture of an America where the American dream is for everybody.”

Despite changes to American society since the 1960s, there remain a number of challenges to realizing a truly equitable country. According to Williams, “Progress has been made in the fight for racial justice, but as we reflect nearly 60 years after Dr. King stated ‘the Negro still is not free,’ in 2022 Black people are still not free from racism and discrimination in America.”

Continued activism in the vein of Dr. King is where Williams finds hope for the future of racial justice.

“Dr. King having a dream and seeing it progress to becoming a reality inspires me to continue to dream, as there is power in dreaming,” says Williams. “To dream is to make sense of the past, take ownership of the future, and inspire action in the present.”

Henry D. Brill contributed to this article.

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