Speech Truth to Power (by Johny Ek Aban)



11.10 Students analyze the development of federal civil rights and voting rights.

2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text.

9. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.


This lesson plan aims teach students about the power of speeches as well as the power of marching and organizing by surveying speeches by two prominent Black men in America history – Martin Luther King and President Obama. In a look through history, students will not only be able to learn new vocabulary words, they also learn the ways speeches and marches were used as platforms to move masses of people, how much emotion can be communicated through them. As an added bonus, the goal of this lesson is to show students that public speech may be scary but can be tremendously important.

The lesson plan starts with MLK’s speech at the end of Selma to Montgomery March, a momentous march that occurred a few months before the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After reading the speech, students will look a media’s reaction to the speech and the march overall as well as get chance to think about the planning that goes into a march. After cross analysis between the sources, students will have a chance to listen to the speech and think about what effect the speech had on them.

Next, students will get an opportunity to read a speech from President Obama during the march’s 50th anniversary. For this part of the lesson, students will compare and contrast the two speeches and analyze differences in messages, tones, and anything else they noticed. Students will be asked to think about what this historic moment means for the Civil Rights movement.

Essential Understanding:

Students will learn the power of speeches and marching through speech from Martin Luther King and President Obama.


  • What does it mean to organize a march?
  • How are speeches a tool for organizers?
  • How do you inspire a group of people?
  • How does a secondary source paint a different picture and why is it important?
  • What do the differences between the two speeches reveal changes or ongoing struggles for Blacks in the United States?


  • Ralph Abernathy: Civil rights activist and minister that worked alongside MLK during the Civil Rights Movements.
  • Oppressor: Someone who executes prolonged unjust treatment on people in this case, Black people.  
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964: Outlaws discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origins. Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson


In this history lesson, the main objective is to think about movements and how marches and speeches play important roles. This lesson is intended to have students fully dive into a part of the Civil Rights movement beyond Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech to enrich student’s understanding of the strength and power Black Americans have during the Civil Rights movement.

During the 60s, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing and there was a march from Selma to Montgomery to put pressure on the federal government to pass civil rights laws. This march was inspired by the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a man who wanted to protect his mother from getting beaten by police.[1] After learning a little bit more about how the march came to be, the lesson goes on to discuss the speech Martin Luther King gives at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery.

This speech and march are a powerful moment in history as Martin Luther King and others were able to march despite violence from police and Whites throughout their journey. Through the speech one can see that emotion and strength needed to participate in the march and then have to encourage people to keep going and to keep the hope alive.

 The final component of the lesson is to look at President Obama’s Selma speech that he read on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday – one of the hardest days of the march. Using some analytical skills, students will explore the differences between the two speeches especially in what ways the messages are similar to MLK’s speech or if Obama outlines new struggles.


Eyes on the Prize Documentary

Jimmie Lee Jackson Martyr NYT

Brief Origins Story

Bloody Sunday Secondary Source

Selma to Montgomery Speech (Transcript and Audio)

Transcript: Obama’s Selma Speech


Day 1:

  • To start the lesson, ask students what they know about the Civil Rights movements? Can they name more people in the movement than MLK and Rosa Parks? Ask students if they have they ever been part of a march? Also, warn students that the Civil Rights movement, though MLK wanted nonviolence, did have a good amount violence and some scenes or texts may be graphic.
  • Introduce Jimmie Lee Jackson – a spark for the Selma to Montgomery march
    • Have the students read the brief origins of the march as well as the Jimmie Lee Jackson Martyr piece from the NYT.
    • Ask students to put this event into historical context. What are Black Americans fighting for? In small groups or in pairs discuss why organizers needed to march after Jackson’s death. Write the ideas on the board or on piece of paper to keep for the last class.
  • Have students read MLK’s Selma to Montgomery speech. Ask students to circle words they don’t understand and underline what they think are important phrases.
    • Rather than have an immediate share out, have students write down their reactions to the speech. How did it make them feel? Were they moved by his words? What message was MLK trying to send to the audience? What message was he sending to the federal and state governments?
    • Using the primary and secondary sources, what do they say about marches and speeches as organizing tools?

Day 2:

  • Start the class by asking students to share out their reflections from the previous day. What had they learned, what are they still curious about, and what angered or elated them?
  • For background purposes, have the students read the NYT piece about Bloody Sunday which is another important event during the Selma to Montgomery march.
  • Queue up MLK’s speech. Ask students to focus on tone, pauses, and how and when the audience reacts or doesn’t react.
    • Again, have students reflect on their own pieces of paper. Ask them to compare the written words of the speech versus the actual delivery of the speech. What is MLK trying to do at the conclusion of the march?
  • To give students a better visual for the marches, play the Eyes on the Prize documentary. 
    • Taking all the sources together, what were some of the major themes that surrounded this march? What are student’s new understanding of marches and speeches are organizing tools?

Day 3:

  • Present students with Obama’s Selma speech and ask students to give it a quick read through. Again, circling words they don’t fully understand and underlining what they think is important or interesting.
    • What are some initial reactions?
  • Have students read it once more but have them identify themes or words that are similar between Obama and MLK’s speeches.
    • Ask students to go on the board and have a Venn diagram for them to put ideas from Obama’s speech in one circle, MLK’s in another, and then what they have in come in the middle of both circles.
    • What does the Venn diagram say about changes over time in the United States? Was Obama’s speech used in the same way as MLK’s was? Which speech did students feel was more impactful and why? Was the march and the speech successful in achieving MLK’s or the Civil Rights movement’s goals?

Additional Sources:

RAPOPORT, ROGER. “THE ROAD TO SELMA.” In In the Name of Editorial Freedom: 125 Years at the Michigan Daily, edited by STEINBERG STEPHANIE, 5-11. ANN ARBOR: University of Michigan Press, 2015. http://www.jstor.org.ccl.idm.oclc.org/stable/10.3998/mpub.7864923.5.

Lucks, Daniel S. “Dr. King’s Painful Dilemma.” In Selma to Saigon: The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, 141-68. University Press of Kentucky, 2014. http://www.jstor.org.ccl.idm.oclc.org/stable/j.ctt5vkkvv.8.

Turner, James P., and ARI BERMAN. “SELMA’S AFTERMATH.” In Selma and the Liuzzo Murder Trials: The First Modern Civil Rights Convictions, 91-96. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018. http://www.jstor.org.ccl.idm.oclc.org/stable/10.3998/mpub.9753373.17.

[1] GARROW, DAVID J. “Selma March.” In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 4: Myth, Manners, and Memory, edited by WILSON CHARLES REAGAN, 263-64. University of North Carolina Press, 2006. http://www.jstor.org.ccl.idm.oclc.org/stable/10.5149/9781469616704_wilson.95.