Essay on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Be Somebody" Speech

January 18, 2018 by Guest Student Author

by Ember L.

This speech originally came from an assignment from the IB English Higher Level Year 2 class, in which we analyzed several works by Martin Luther King Jr. and wrote personal written responses to them. For this, I chose to use King’s 1967 speech given to high school students about the merits of staying in school in order to respond to the question “in what ways are his ideas relevant to our world today, and why is that continued relevance important/significant”


B. Continued relevance of MLK’s ideas/points. In what ways are his ideas relevant to our world today, and why is that continued relevance important/significant?


In his speech commonly known under the title “Be Somebody," legendary civil rights activist and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood before students at the Glenville High School in Cleveland, and motivated them to stay in schools, despite the high numbers of instances of drop-outs. He was brought in to examine the racial problems within the city, and inspired students facing ever-present racial injustice. Exactly 50 years from his execution of this speech, our world today continues to see problems with students staying in school, and sees this timeless speech as a work incredibly relevant to the situation today. Martin Luther King Jr.’s points of motivating adolescents to stay in school holds incredible cultural relevance in our world today, as the issue of inaccessibility to education especially among students of color still remains prominent.


Since King’s 1967 original delivery of his speech, the idea that education is a privilege and not has been steadily ingrained into the minds of students globally. In Perú, non-profit organization The Sacred Valley Project was built on the fact that only 4 in 10 indigenous girls in Perú will graduate from secondary school (1); thus, the organization provides lodging near schools for girls to live in while they attend as they come from far-away rural communities where there are no schools present. In the United States, the high school dropout rate of Hispanic students has reportedly reached an all time low, decreasing from 36% in the late nineties to 10% in 2016 (2), and the graduation rate of black students at four-year public institutions raised by 4% (3). More and more, students are taught that education is a privilege, and I believe this has led to an increase in students who consciously choose the path of education when they can.


In King’s speech, he readily acknowledges the obstacles that stand in the way of minorities achieving education. He tells his own anecdote of his high school, which was overcrowded due its population of “7,000 students” (4), which led to his teachers having “to spend all the time getting the class in order and disciplining the class because it was so overcrowded” (5), thus spending the time disciplining and (presumably) not teaching the students. He speaks of the benefits and advantages that African Americans will have, both in accessibility to education and accessibility to the working world beyond, specifically when he says that African-Americans must not “set out merely to do a good Negro job” (6) but rather do a job so great no one else can compare, even with the possibility that it may “fall [one’s] lot to be a streetsweeper” (7).


King understands that “many have lost motivation” (8), but goes on to tell the students they “must achieve excellence in [their] various fields of endeavor” (9). Through this, King is telling the students that they need to strive for accomplishment in any career field they choose to work in, and that to do this, they must continue their education –– “we’ve got to study hard, to stay in school” (10). King’s speech additionally motivates students in that he does not say that they should stay in school without giving clear reason for it. King is successful in motivating students, because he gives them purpose beyond staying in school that fuels them to do so. He invites his audience to “work in the civil rights movement” (11), thereby giving the students a purpose to continue their education, so that they will inevitably have the opportunity to take their education and use it in the fight to “achieve freedom” (12) for the oppressed people. In this speech, King tells his audience that because they have the privilege and opportunity to find education that they must take it, while giving them examples of real-world and tangible applications of their educations to further motivate them.


As someone who will soon graduate from high school and definitely attend a college or university next year, I have never needed the additional motivation such as this to stay in school. I have always been taught that education should be my top priority in my life so long as I am a student, and the idea of dropping out is unfathomable. I find myself at times astonished at how educated I am, and how lucky and grateful I am to all of the factors in my life that have allowed me to be this way, to be someone who has had the privilege of attending not one, but two separate private high schools. I distinctly remember a moment sitting with a friend during dinner last month, both of us marveling at the education we have received at our school, and how incomparable it is to the public schools in our area in addition to some of the nearby private institutions. And, while I understand that that I have had access to educational opportunities that allow me to have this focus on my education where others have not, I wonder how those who have unwavering access to education, be it high school or college or both, make the choice to endanger or reject their education simply because they can.


I have seen people make it through hard work and sheer determination to get to a university, only to be forced to leave due to outside circumstances that they have no control of. I have seen people who make it to a university, only to be forced to drop out due to inability to afford the cost, or health issues, or obligations to take care of family members. But I cannot fathom the mindset behind those who engage in reckless acts such as bullying or plagiarism and in turn find themselves expelled from secondary school, or who come from such abundant generational wealth that they simply feel they do not need to go to college.

I additionally believe that with the way we frame fame and fortune in our modern society, more and more young people feel that they do not need college because they can simply make money one way or another, often regarded as choosing instead to “do what they love." I see people who attempt to start a small business, to become the next big SoundCloud rapper, or to hit a follower count on Instagram high enough that makes them believe they can be an actor or model. While these are all valid aspirations, I believe there comes a point where people should truly analyze themselves and examine why they believe college just “isn’t for them,” a common sentiment shared around teenagers today. If a career in business, music, acting or fashion is something people believe is their passion, I question why more and more people think that learning how to excel in one of these fields through a college education is unnecessary. I believe that if you truly want to excel in your field, just like King says in his speech, then college or university or even trade school should not seem like such an undesirable option if it is a possibility. I see so many young adults additionally placing emphasis on the selective schools which they can or cannot get into that they are further pushed from the idea of college if they feel they will not be accepted into Harvard or Yale; however, it should not (and to some extent, does not) matter where you go so long as you go somewhere that will teach you what you specifically need to learn. I believe that it is up to the student to find a school that has a curriculum that excites them, and that it is the student's own responsibility to shape the path their education will take and tailor it to what they want to learn.


I believe King’s insistence that it is the student’s choice to “enter these doors [of opportunity] as they open” (13) reigns true, exactly fifty years after this speech was originally given. Fifty years later, and while doors of opportunity are opening more and more there are still obstacles disproportionately facing students of color and those from low-income communities. Fifty years later, and although we see upwards trends in overall graduation rates, there are too many people either finding themselves, or simply seeing firsthand a loved one, facing an unstable future that does not involve education.


I believe we need to examine the obstacles that prevent students all over the world from receiving education that they need or desperately want. I also believe that those who willfully choose to reject their own access to education need to examine their own privilege that allows them to do so. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., we can all “make full and constructive use of the freedom we already possess” (14), be it education or otherwise, and I believe we must come together to give access to freedom and education to those who do not currently hold it in their possession.


1 2016 Annual Report. Rep. Sacred Valley Project, 2016. Web. 5 Nov. 2017.

2 Gramlich, John. "Hispanic Dropout Rate Hits New Low, College Enrollment at New High."Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, 29 Sept. 2017. Web. 05 Nov. 2017.

3 Camera, Lauren. "The College Graduation Gap Is Still Growing." U.S. News & World Report. U.S. News & World Report, 23 Mar. 2016. Web. 05 Nov. 2017.

4 King, Jr., Martin Luther, Dr. "Be Somebody." Reading, Page 2.

5 King, Jr., Martin Luther, Dr. "Be Somebody." Reading. Page 2.

6 King, Jr., Martin Luther, Dr. "Be Somebody." Reading. Page 4.

7 King, Jr., Martin Luther, Dr. "Be Somebody." Reading. Page 4.

8 King, Jr., Martin Luther, Dr. "Be Somebody." Reading. Page 3.

9 King, Jr., Martin Luther, Dr. "Be Somebody." Reading. Page 3.

10 King, Jr., Martin Luther, Dr. "Be Somebody." Reading. Page 3.

11 King, Jr., Martin Luther, Dr. "Be Somebody." Reading. Page 5

12 King, Jr., Martin Luther, Dr. "Be Somebody." Reading. Page 6

13 King, Jr., Martin Luther, Dr. "Be Somebody." Reading. Page 4.

14 King, Jr., Martin Luther, Dr. "Be Somebody." Reading. Page 3.

*****

"Works Cited
* Camera, Lauren. "The College Graduation Gap Is Still Growing." U.S. News & World Report. U.S. News & World Report, 23 Mar. 2016. Web. 05 Nov. 2017.
* Gramlich, John. "Hispanic Dropout Rate Hits New Low, College Enrollment at New High."Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, 29 Sept. 2017. Web. 05 Nov. 2017.
* King, Jr., Martin Luther, Dr. "Be Somebody." Reading.
2016 Annual Report. Rep. Sacred Valley Project, 2016. Web. 5 Nov. 2017. <http://sacredvalleyproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/SacredValleyProject_AR2016.pdf>.


Written by Guest Student Author

Periodically students volunteer or are asked to write for the Stoneleigh-Burnham blog.

Filed Under: StudentVoice, Student Writing, Student work, anti-racism