Letter Read ‘Round the World
In a letter to eight members of
the clergy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explained the reasons he
and others demonstrated in Birmingham, Alabama. Students analyze
to understand the rationale for this tactic to advance civil rights
and to recognize the persuasive potential of literary techniques
and logic employed by King. In addition, students use a primary
document to examine civil disobedience and a protester who, like
Thoreau, was jailed for his actions.
- Citizens take many courses of action to bring public attention
to social issues.
- Letters have been used for centuries for personal, business
and social commentary.
- Social protest and civil disobedience relate to the right of
Go to this curriculum’s First
Principles. The First Principles document was developed to explain
in practical, everyday terms just what the First Amendment means.
Read the explanations to the principles listed below. They have
special relevance to the activities in this lesson.
- The First Amendment affirms the freedom of the individual.
- Free expression is the foundation — the cornerstone — of democracy.
- The First Amendment tells the government to keep its “hands
off” our religion, our ideas, our ability to express ourselves.
This lesson assumes students who study
King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” have an understanding of slavery
in the United States, civil disobedience and Henry David Thoreau,
and the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of assembly.
- Ask students for examples of reasons people might want to assemble.
These might include political reasons (local interest group meetings,
city council or state legislative hearings, political debates,
public hearings), school conditions and policies, and religious
and social concerns.
Make sure that the idea of assembling to protest or petition the
government for redress of grievances is introduced, using recent
local or state examples to make the point.
“Assembly” is a neutral word, while “protest demonstration” has
suggested meaning. Does connotation change reaction to a headline
and the reader’s response to assembly? Have students rate these
headlines from low to high effectiveness.
Answers will vary. Headline writers must draw attention to their
stories and summarize the article. Students should see that headline
“d” is generic and would not draw the reader’s attention. While
headline “a” will draw attention, it is less balanced, with its
strong connotative words, “fear,” “trouble” and “anarchists.”
This exercise will demonstrate to students the difficulty of writing
headlines for breaking news.
Did the headline writer report just the facts or express an attitude
toward the event?
- L.A. officials fear trouble from anarchists
- GOP convention protests remain peaceful
- Demonstrators promise more disruptions
- Groups assemble at convention
- Philadelphia police arrest convention protest leaders
- Activists protest at the convention
- Give students copies
Amendment freedoms crucial to success of civil rights movement.”
Ask students to list activities that resulted from the rights
of free speech, assembly and redress of grievances. In what ways
was the First Amendment affirmed in the courts during the civil
rights movement? How were permit requests used to dissuade assembly?
To give students an historic context for King’s letter, review
the events that lead to arrests on April 12, 1963. The Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr. in a Time magazine interview said of 1963, “It
was the most decisive year in the Negro fight for equality. Never
before had there been such a coalition of conscience on this issue.”
A Coalition of Conscience for an essential background for
the remainder of this lesson. Print as a handout for your students.
- Ask students to read King’s
from Birmingham Jail.” This important document can be found
on many Web sites. Several links are used within this lesson.
We have provided an excerpt
from the complete text for use in your classroom. To improve their
comprehension and reading skills, students could create an outline
of major divisions or argument development in the passage as it
is read aloud.
- Divide the class into
groups. Distribute copies of the Letter from Birmingham Jail Questions
and Concepts, Ask students to discuss the questions in their
groups. The Concepts portion of this file is for teachers.
- You may wish to assign groups to be experts for particular questions.
Then open the discussion to the rest of the class.
- Assign students
one of the following:
- Pretend you are living in 1963. Write a letter to the editor
of the Birmingham Post-Herald or a newspaper of choice.
- Write an essay on King's use of concrete and metaphoric
- In an essay, describe the rhetorical purpose of King's letter
and analyze its stylistic and persuasive devices. This is
ideal practice for students taking the AP English Language
and Composition or AP English Literature and Composition Examination.
- Write a column. Relate one of the issues or idea raised
by King to contemporary society.
- Many English classes study Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
It is a nonfiction classic in American literature. A study of
the time period and Thoreau might also include “On the Duty of
Civil Disobedience” by Thoreau and “The Night Thoreau Spent in
Jail,” a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Relate to
the principles of Gandhi, Thoreau and King.
- Lead students in brainstorming a variety of methods that people
can use to petition the government for redress of grievances (e.g.,
testifying at a public hearing, writing letters to public officials,
circulating formal petitions). Follow up by inviting a former
elected official from the city council, county commissioners,
or other local body to meet with the class. (A former official
may be more candid with the class.) If no such person is readily
available, a staff person who actually screens calls and letters
might be. The class and official should discuss how an elected
official decides whose petition or requests get their attention
first. Focus on how the ordinary citizens can be most effective
in getting attention and being taken seriously.
- Study the use of civil disobedience around the world. Begin
by reminding students of the significant role Mahatma Gandhi played
in demonstrating the power of nonviolent civil disobedience. Students
from Singapore and India prepared “The
Man, The Mahatma: Mahatma Gandhi and the story of Indian Independence,”
an excellent introduction to his life, ideals and influences.
Teachers may select a contemporary example or use the student
protests in China in 1989. Read newspaper accounts, research and
reflect upon activities which took place at Tiananmen Square.
- Study the search for civil rights by black soldiers in the Civil
War. The National Archives and Records Administrations provides
a lesson plan using primary sources in their holding. For history,
government and language arts teachers, ”The
Fight for Equal Rights: Black Soldiers in the Civil War,”
takes a close look at the issues of emancipation and military
History, American History
A collection of seminal essays by African-American writers that
have been published by The Atlantic: “Reconstruction,”
Frederick Douglas, December 1866; “The Awakening of the Negro,”
Booker T. Washington, September 1896; “The Strivings of the Negro
People,” W.E.B. Du Bois, August 1897; “The Case of the Negro,”
Booker T. Washington, November 1899; “The Training of Black Men,”
W.E.B. Du Bois, September 1902; and “The Negro is Your Brother,”
Martin Luther King, Jr., August 1963.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University
Featured documents include “Address on March on Washington for
Jobs and Freedom,” “Acceptance Speech at Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony,”
and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” Speeches, sermons and autobiography.
Original documents, programs, glossary of nonviolence and resources
including links to nonviolence and National Civil Rights sites.
History, theory and practice of civil disobedience.
and the Environment
The life and writings of Henry David Thoreau as well as the Walden
Woods Project, the Thoreau Society and The Thoreau Institute.
Brown’s Holy War
Frederick Douglass said, “I could live for the slave, but he could
die for him.” This video takes a look at a different approach
to obtaining rights, one that is part of the Civil War and the
In Search of Freedom:
Excerpts From His Most Memorable Speeches. Universal Special
Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom
Songs, 1960-1966. Smithsonian Folkways. 1997.
The Papers of Martin
Luther King, Jr.: Birth of a New Age: December 1955-December 1956
(Vol. 3). Univ. of California Press. 1997.
Ask your librarian to order this volume. Clayborne Carson, director
of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project and professor of
history at Stanford University, has compiled documents needed
for a comprehensive study of the civil rights movement.
The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Symbol of the Movement:
January 1957-December 1958 (Vol. 4). Univ. of California Press.
The Right to Protest: The Basic ACLU Guide to Free Expression.
Joel M. Gora, David Goldberger, Gary M. Stern and Morton H. Halperin.
The Rights of Racial Minorities: The Basic ACLU Guide to Racial
Minority Rights. Laughlin McDonald and John A. Powell. 1993.
King, Martin Luther. Stride Toward Freedom.
Christian love and nonviolent principals guided the civil rights
movement, according to King. “Christianity in action,” as King
called this response to segregation, is summarized in six key
Language Arts, Standard 6: Uses reading skills and strategies
to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts.
Language Arts, Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to
understand and interpret a variety of informational texts.
Language Arts, Standard 6, Grades 9-12: Uses reading
skills and strategies to understand a variety of literary texts
(e.g., fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, biographies, autobiographies,
science fiction, supernatural tales, satires, parodies, plays, American
literature, British literature, world and ancient literature); Understands
the effects of author's style and complex literary devices and techniques
on the overall quality of a work (e.g., tone; irony; mood; figurative
language; allusion; diction; dialogue; symbolism; point of view;
voice; understatement and overstatement; time and sequence; narrator;
poetic elements, such as sound, imagery, personification).
Language Arts, Standard 6, Grades 9-12: Understands relationships
between literature and its historical period, culture, and society
(e.g., influence of historical context on form, style, and point
of view; influence of literature on political events; social influences
on author's description of characters, plot, and setting; how writer's
represent and reveal their cultures and traditions)
Language Arts, Standard 6, Grades 9-12: Makes connections between
his or her own life and the characters, events, motives, and causes
of conflict in texts
Language Arts, Standard 7, Grades 9-12: Summarizes and paraphrases
complex, implicit hierarchic structures in informational texts,
including the relationships among the concepts and details in those
structures; Analyzes techniques (e.g., language, organization, tone,
context) used to convey viewpoints or impressions (e.g., sarcasm,
criticism, praise, affection)
Language Arts, Standard 7, Grades 9-12: Uses a variety of criteria
to evaluate the clarity and accuracy of information (e.g., author's
bias, use of persuasive strategies, consistency, clarity of purpose,
effectiveness of organizational pattern, logic of arguments, reasoning,
expertise of author, propaganda techniques, authenticity, appeal
to friendly or hostile audience, faulty modes of persuasion)
Review “A Letter Read ‘Round the World” lesson provided for History/Civics
teachers. Humanities teachers will find the two lessons on “Letter
from Birmingham Jail” work well together for study of a shared primary