Martin Luther King Jr: A Study in Frame and Mechanic

Today we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, as well as his life. There is so much that is remarkable about how he lived, what he did, and the things he said, the day cannot capture it all.

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However, it makes for an interesting example of frame versus mechanic.

My daughter and I started the day watching a television show with ‘man on the street’ interviews. They were asking people, young and old, what Dr. King had done, what his life had meant, etc. Hopefully not due to creative editing, every interviewee knew who Dr. King was and had something nice (and correct) to say. However, the words almost exclusively spoke to the ‘frame’ of his life, with almost no mechanics.

To remind us all about the ever-present struggle of teaching frames AND mechanics, let me define the concepts quickly. One way to look at mechanics and frames is through the lens of what and why. Mechanics are the what (and possibly the how) whereas the frames are why (and possibly when). I’ve pointed out in previous blogs that experts tend to use language that is beyond that of a novice, while a master teacher demystifies that language to make it attainable. Similarly, experts tend to focus solely on either the mechanics or (less often) the frame – whereas master teachers make sure both mechanic and frame are components of the learning (and the outcome).

Want to see a lot of mechanics with little frame? Look for worksheets and practice problems which dominate homework (or in-class work). This might explain why there is such a rift between science professors and philosophy professors.  Stereotypically, science professors deal in “facts” so they encourage practice of dealing with those facts, often mentioning the frame that gives context to those facts only briefly, if saying anything at all.  Meanwhile, philosophy professors deal in frames almost exclusively. Ever heard a philosophy student lament the “navel gazing” the do in class? Having taken a handful of pure philosophy classes in my career as a student, I lost count of the number of times I heard myself or my peers say, “So what?  What are we supposed to DO with that?”

Teaching mostly frames is a bad idea.  Teaching mostly mechanics is a bad idea.  While teaching to one or the other is far easier for a presenter, taking far less preparation and far less audience consideration, a lack of balance is bad for learning.

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Which brings us back to Dr. King. The interviews my daughter and I heard were very much ‘frame’ based. He was a Civil Rights leader. He gave speeches. He was a minister. The one (and only one) mechanic that the general public seem to really know was his, “I Have A Dream” speech. Even young children talk about the black and white footage, the huge numbers of people, and the Lincoln Memorial in the backdrop.

But nobody really talked about the contents of that speech, nor any speech. As a professor of rhetoric and speech, I have studied that speech a number of times as well as asking my students for more than 20 years to do the same. The words really were quite something. Dr. King asked all of America to "make real the promises of democracy." However, as powerful as his words were, did you know that he did not perform the speech as written? Moved by the emotion of the crowd, Dr. King went off script and began preaching from the heart. However, that speech alone did not define this leader. That iconic speech, following that march, is not Dr. King’s only legacy. The mechanics of his life add greatly to the greater frame.

For example, did you realize Dr. King spoke at the Lincoln Memorial six years before that iconic event? Six years before the speech that would immortalize him, King was among the civil rights leaders who spoke during the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. In front of 15-30,000 people, Dr. King delivered his first national address on the topic of voting rights, urging America to “give us the ballot!”

Another important note to King’s life is that he survived multiple assassination attempts prior to the successful shot that took his life. But the most incredible (even shocking) of these took place on September 20, 1958. Dr. King was signing copies of his new book, “Stride Toward Freedom,” in Harlem, NY. He was approached by a woman named Izola Ware Curry. According to witnesses, after asking if he was indeed Dr. King, Curry said, “I’ve been looking for you for five years.” With that she plunged a seven-inch letter opener into his chest. The tip of the blade came right up to Dr. King’s aorta, forcing emergency surgery. His surgeon later told King that a single sneeze could have punctured the aorta and killed him. King issued a statement from the hospital bed affirming both his nonviolent ideals and saying he felt no ill will toward Ms. Curry, who must suffer from mental illness.

Add to these stories that Dr. King was (wrongfully) imprisoned 29 different times or that his mom also died from shooting. You start to get a much broader, more important sense of the “frames” of Civil Rights and freedom and grace that Dr. King stood for.

I hope this does a decent job explaining two important concepts: the real power behind Dr. King’s life and the importance of teaching both the mechanic and the frame. Both are likely deserving of future study! (You might check out the eBook I created for Campus.app around ‘Master Teaching.’)

So as we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s life today, let’s really remember all that he did, how he lived, and how he spoke.

Good luck and good learning.