August brings us to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which included the “I Have a Dream Speech” by Dr. Martin Luther King , Jr. This event and speech, of course, is regarded by many as a pivotal moment in not only the Civil Rights movement, but also American History. The speech has been used by History ,English, and even Speech teachers to emphasize the points made and the style as well.
Not Your Typical Memorial Day Speech
Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr. wasn’t in Gettysburg in 1963, but Vice President Lyndon Johnson was on Memorial Day. He will give a speech that year at the Memorial Day event at the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg. On the surface you would think that his speech would focus on honoring the sacrifices of those soldiers buried there and he certainly does that, but after asking us to remember their sacrifice and understanding that having a military helps keep peace (i.e. Cold War Era) , he took a different approach.
“As we maintain the vigil of peace, we must remember that justice is a vigil, too–a vigil we must keep in our own streets and schools and among the lives of all our people–so that those who died here on their native soil shall not have died in vain. One hundred years ago, the slave was freed, One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin.”
The New York Times recently did an article on the 1963 speech and it caught my attention. The words of this speech reveal some
of LBJ’s thinking and just a few months later he will become president where his “Great Society” plans will be put into action. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 will be passed roughly a year later. Some might say these were a part of the “vigil of justice”.
We incorporated this speech in our end of the year unit called Active Citizenship. In that unit, we focus on four methods that citizens can make change in our nation: education, litigation, legislation, and innovation. Our unit pulls examples from the Civil Rights Movement for each method. This speech served as an attempt to educate, just as Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” will a few months later.
Lesson Plan Ideas
1. Compare the text of LBJ’s speech to that of the Gettysburg Address. What questions can be raised? What was the status, in 1963, of the “new birth of freedom” that Lincoln talked of in his speech in 1863 ?
2.For a Civics lesson use the fact that Johnson will reference the “Law” in his speech. That reference can lead to a discussion of the Constitution as “higher law”. What do laws mean if they are not enforced? The question of States’ Rights can be brought into discussion as well. Those issues were still there in 1963, 100 years after the war ended (and even today to an extent).
“The law cannot save those who deny it but neither can the law serve any who do not use it. The history of injustice and inequality is a history of disuse of the law. Law has not failed–and is not failing.”
3. If you teach a unit on the 1960’s , this speech could give students a glimpse into the thinking of LBJ. Have students research what may have made a man from Texas come to these views on freedom and equality.
The moment you start to think that Gettysburg is about a three day battle or one speech given by Lincoln, you start to realize the connections between 1863 , 1963 , and 2013 are many .
Shribman, David. “L.B.J.’s Gettysburg Address.” New York Times. The New York Times Company, 24 May 2013. Web.
Link to the article - which includes a recording of the speech
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