Today is the 55th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which mean it’s also the anniversary of his incomparable I Have A Dream speech.

We can’t think of a better way to honor the day than to share his words our children and really truly discussing their meaning.

Related: An excellent list of MLK books, videos and resources to help kids understand the reason we honor him

Whatever age your kids are, please pick up Kadir Nelson’s picture book I Have A Dream, featuring Nelson’s exceptionally evocative, powerful oil paintings that bring the speech to life.

(If you don’t know Kadir Nelson’s work, he’s an American treasure in his own right.)

The book isn’t a mere excerpt of the speech — as in, the quotes we all know about Black and white children playing together. (A line that doesn’t appear until page 5 of the six-page speech, by the way. And only after a scathing condemnation of Alabama’s “vicious racists” including Governor George Wallace.)

It includes the entire speech. And as The King Center reminded us on Twitter today, we should “commemorate today by reading the ENTIRE speech. There are bold components that are often not shared.”

There will be be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge.

If you want to discuss certain passages with your children, you can let their questions guide you. Listen to the speech or read it aloud and ask them what they have questions about, or what they didn’t understand.

If your kids are a little older, and can process more nuance, I think this paragraph is an excellent place to start:

We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is
no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualization. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the unlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

-Ask your kids why he speaks about “fierce urgency.”

-Ask them why the idea of “cooling off” is described as a luxury.

-Ask them what “the tranquilizing drug of gradualization” means.

-Ask them why he describes the path of racial justice as “unlit.”

-Ask them for examples of justice not being a reality for all people in America.

-Ask them in what ways they believe these words are still relevant today.

If your children are white, like mine, today is also perfect opportunity to discuss what it means to be an ally (Roo Ciambriello’s article A Beginner’s Guide to Becoming an Ally to the Black Community is a brilliant place to start), and ask your kids what they think Dr. King meant when he said:

[White people] have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. 

Kadir Nelson's I Have a Dream book: Paintings from the picture book bringing Dr. King's speech to life

And surely most older kids are aware that there’s an important election coming up this November. If they’ve been following the news at all, (or hearing you rant about it, in which they have a lot in common with my kids), I would also share this important statement from Dr. King about civic engagement and disenfranchisement:

We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. 

It will give context to so many recent stories about voter suppression, including this major story from just last week: Georgia County Rejects Plans to Close 7 Polling Places in Majority Black Neighborhoods. 

I want to say “unbelievable! How is this happening in 2018?” But honestly, it’s not unbelievable at all. And as my friends of color have taught me well, if you can’t believe that this is America today, you’re not paying attention.

For more info about this, click over to the helpful interactive chart from the ACLU about voter suppression laws by state. I promise after seeing it, your kids will have amazing questions. Some of which will be hard to answer.

That’s okay. You can look up the answers together.

On the 55th anniversary of Dr. King's I Have a Dream speech, the ACLU chart of voter suppression laws by state

If you don’t have the I Have A Dream book or can’t grab it from the library (though I highly recommend owning your own copy), find the complete text of I Have A Dream from the National Archives site (PDF). Or listen to the speech in its entirety courtesy of NPR. Then talk about why this fight for civil rights and social justice continues 55 years later.

As Dr. King proclaimed on the steps of the Washington Mall 55 years ago:

There will be be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge.

And as The King Center reiterated today: “Then, let’s DREAM, AWAKEN &  DO.”


For more info about the nuances of Dr. King’s speech, I highly suggest reading Gary Younge’s excellent piece in The Nation from 2013: The Misremembering of I Have a Dream, which provides some essential context, as well as describing how, in the words of African-American historian Vincent Harding, the speech is “profoundly and willfully misunderstood.”