English professor reflects on MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech during talk

Michael Hill discusses the importance of Civil Rights during his speech at W&L’s Hillel House on Tuesday

Elyse Ferris

Professor Michael Hill grew up with Martin Luther King Jr. as a defining figure of his childhood.

He recalled how the fondness and respect his grandmother held for Dr. King shaped his personal regard for King, both as a child and now as an adu

“Every time I’m invited to say something about Martin Luther King, my answer is assent . . . If I can get there, then I’m going,” Hill said. “My grandmother made it impossible for me to extricate myself from Martin Luther King. At every turn, she’d thrust him into my life.”

Hill delivered an address titled, “‘American Dreamin’: Adolescence in the Black Imagination” at the Washington and Lee Hillel House last Tuesday.

Hill is an associate professor of English at University of Iowa and a personal friend of W&L Provost Marc Conner. He has authored a variety of books, reviews and papers, including “Ethics of Swagger: Prizewinning African American Novels, 1977-1993,” “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: A Reference Guide” and “Invisible Hawkeyes.”

His works range from an examination of black culture in America, with a particular regard to literature, to questions of adolescence within it, stories of integration and more.

In his lecture, Hill spoke of King’s emphasis on the importance of Civil Rights for children and future generations, as well as the development of differences in culture and attitude across generations.

As a child, Hill’s grandmother urged him to memorize King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from the 1963 March on Washington, which Hill would later perform at church and community events. King became important to Hill when he was a child, so King’s consideration for children did not go unnoticed by Hill.

Hill noted the three occasions in King’s speech in which he presents images of children. He paid particular attention to King’s line which said, “I have a dream that . . . in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

“These evocations of children establish King’s investment in children for the future,” Hill said.

“King’s tone in the “I Have a Dream” speech has led some commentators to dismiss him as an idealist,” Hill said in regards to critiques of King’s positivity. “What he sought in the “I Have a Dream” speech was a durable dedication that could equip people for the long haul.”

Hill asked his audience to take on a mindset more like King’s.

“Resist the temptation to scorn dreamers. Put a little poetry in your heart so that you remember the foundation of your dreams,” Hill urged.

Students were receptive to his speech because he made his points relatable by using childhood as his central motif.

Joelle Simeu, ’20, said, “I liked [the talk] a lot and the fact that he focused on youth. I like his idea that it’s okay to dream and it’s okay to work towards those dreams.”

Hill’s speech was one of twelve different events offered by W&L last week in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 16th.

Other events held on campus in celebration of King included a service project, a basketball tournament, and a panel discussion and forum.

The week’s events at W&L followed a historic weekend for Lexington and Rockbridge County as its streets saw their first MLK parade on a day previously reserved for Lee-Jackson Day celebrations.