Six months before he was murdered in Memphis, TN, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the student body of Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia. (Full video linked in photo caption.)
You read that correctly. Junior high school students: twelve, thirteen, and fourteen year olds.
On that day, he gave his full attention to middle schoolers and junior highers, a demographic that is often overlooked, ignored, avoided, and viewed as too young to engage in meaningful, thoughtful, and significant conversations.
King delivered a thoughtfully prepared speech that was crafted for his specific audience.
He did not wing it (as some do when their audience is supposedly less discerning and less worthy of the excellence due adults).
He spoke to them powerfully and profoundly (in distinction from those who talk down to or dumb-down a message for an audience they assume to be non-discerning and non-intellectual).
He spoke to them directly and articulately (treating them with the respect and honor that every person deserves).
He spoke to them kindly and firmly (believing that they didn’t primarily need either reprimands for their youthful inclinations or disingenuous coddling for their still-developing identities).
He spoke to them for exactly 20 minutes – shorter than his standard speech, perfect for that particular audience. Because he prepared well and knew his audience, the 20 minutes felt like less. Listeners today will wish he’d said more. I suspect his original listeners felt the same way.
King’s topic was specific to the culture and society of that time, and I clearly recognize my personal inability to deconstruct and understand the full impact of his message in its original social and cultural context.
But it was also specific to the AGE of his audience.
He knew to whom he spoke, and he adjusted his message, style, and content accordingly.
Most importantly of all, he took them seriously (which I consider to be a non-negotiable hallmark of good middle school/junior high ministry leaders).
- He thanked them kindly for inviting him – thanked junior high students.
- He said he was delighted to be with them – with junior high students.
- He called them ladies and gentlemen – those junior high students.
- He referred to them as a very fine and enthusiastic group – those junior high students.
- He encouraged them to invite their parents to, and to attend with them, an important event that evening – an event most people would exclude junior high students from.
Perhaps most importantly, he asked them a deep and meaningful question:
“What is in your life’s blueprint? This is a most important and crucial period of your lives, for what you do now and what you decide now at this age may well determine which way your life shall go.”
“Whenever a building is constructed you usually have an architect who draws you a blueprint, and that blueprint serves as the pattern, the guide, as the model, for those who are to build the building. And a building is not well-erected without a good, sound, and solid blueprint.”
“Now each of you is in the process of building the structure of your lives, and the question is whether you have a proper, a solid, and as found blueprint. And I want to suggest some of the the things that should be in your life’s blueprint.”
His three-point answer (being the good Southern Baptist preacher that he was) rings true today:
- Have a deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth, and your own “somebodiness.” Don’t allow anyone to make you feel that you are nobody. Always feel that you count, that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.
- You must have as a basic principle the determination to achieve excellence in your various fields of endeavor. You’re going to be deciding as the days and years unfold what you will do in your life, what you life’s work will be. When you discover what it will be, set out to do it and to do it well.
- Have a deep commitment to the eternal principles of beauty, love and justice. Don’t allow anybody to pull you so low as to make you hate them. Don’t allow anybody to cause you to lose your self-respect to the point that you do not struggle for justice. However young you are, you have a responsibility to seek to make your nation a better nation in which to live. You have a responsibility to seek to make life better for everybody…I believe we can transform yesterdays of injustice to tomorrows of justice and humanity.
He spoke poetically, meaningfully, and articulately – to junior high students.
He spoke of important, significant, and culturally important issues – to junior high students.
He spoke of responsibility, decision-making, and maturity – to junior high students.
May we continue to take seriously not just the message of King’s speech on this particular day (a message which is timeless), but also the profound beauty of how and to whom he delivered it.
Our junior high and middle school students deserve at least that much from each of us.