A Letter Read ‘Round the World

  History, Civics

Freedom of assembly is guaranteed by the First Amendment. In this lesson, students use a primary document to examine the exercise of this right and a protester who was, in fact, jailed for his actions. 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 King’s letter to understand the rationale for this tactic to advance civil rights.

Key Concepts

  • The right of assembly is essential to the idea of social protest and civil disobedience.

  • Value conflicts may arise as citizens assemble and seek redress of grievances by changing government policy.

  • The First Amendment allows citizens to seek their civil rights through protest demonstrations.

  • Citizens take many courses of action to bring public attention to social issues.

First Principles
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.

First Moments
Lunch Counters and Other Civil Encounters

Begin this lesson by setting the scene:
Four black youth sit at a lunch counter. They order doughnuts, sodas and coffee. They are refused service.

Ask students why these students were refused service. Then add:
It is 1960. They are in Greensboro, N.C. They sit at a whites-only lunch counter in the local Woolworth’s.
What do students know about the time period? About sit-ins?

How are sit-ins a form of assembly? There were sit-ins in the southern states before Feb. 1, 1960. It was this one, held by four black teenagers, that caught the attention of the media and the nation. For background information read “Greensboro Sit-Ins: Launch of a Civil Rights Movement” in which Jim Schlosser, News & Record staff writer, and the three surviving participants tell the story of the sit-ins in print and audio. (The original counter where the event took place at the Greensboro Woolworth’s is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.)

To what extent was the First Amendment important during the civil rights movement in the United States? Use this discussion of sit-ins in the 1960s to lead into the civil rights movement and contemporary attitudes toward assembly.


  1. 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.

  2. Give context for subsequent activities. The focus of this lesson takes place three years after the Greensboro sit-in. Read 1963: A Coalition of Conscience for an essential background for the remainder of this lesson. Print as a handout for your students.

  3. Ask students to read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” We have provided an excerpt from the complete text for use in your classroom. This important King’s document can be found on many Web sites. 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.

  4. Divide the class into groups. Distribute copies of the Letter from Birmingham Jail Questions and Concepts, 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.

  5. Have each student write a summary of King’s reasons for demonstrating in Birmingham. They may include such concepts as demonstration, justice, rights and democracy.


  1. Who has the right to assemble? Why did King’s demonstrations raise such powerful fears and emotions on both sides of the issue? Students might discuss whether King’s arguments supporting protests would apply to such groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party.

  2. Give students copies of “First Amendment freedoms crucial to success of civil rights movement” found on First Amendment Center Online. 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?

  3. Students could interview local citizens who have used their First Amendment rights to protest and compare their reasons for taking action with King’s.

  4. Summarize New York Times v. Sullivan.

  5. Explore the use of demonstrations and protest today. Research may include the Million Man March, the Million Mom March, Million Youth March protests at women’s clinics and demonstrations at the national conventions during election years.

  6. 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.

An extension of this study would be to have students study the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Bill of Rights, then design their own “Bill of Human Rights.”


On the Web
Black 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.

The 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.

The King Center
Original documents, programs, glossary of nonviolence and resources including links to nonviolence and National Civil Rights sites.

Civil Disobedience Index
History, theory and practice of civil disobedience.

Thoreau, Walden, 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.

John 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 American experience.

In Search of Freedom: Excerpts From His Most Memorable Speeches. Universal Special Products. 1996.

Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs, 1960-1966. Smithsonian Folkways. 1997.

In Print
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. 2000.

The Right to Protest: The Basic ACLU Guide to Free Expression. Joel M. Gora, David Goldberger, Gary M. Stern and Morton H. Halperin. 1991.

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 points.

National Standards
United States History, Standard 29: Understands the struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties

Civics, Standard 13: Understands the character of American political and social conflict and factors that tend to prevent or lower its intensity.

Civics, Standard 28 : Understands how participation in civic and political life can help citizens attain individual and public goals.

United States History, Standard 29: Understands how diverse groups united during the civil rights movement (e.g., the escalation from civil disobedience to more radical protest, issues that led to the development of the Asian Civil Rights Movement and the Native American Civil Rights Movement, the issues and goals of the farm labor movement and La Raza Unida); Understands significant influences on the civil rights movement.

Civics, Standard 13, Grades 9-12: Understands issues that involve conflicts among fundamental values and principles such as the conflict between liberty and authority.

Civics, Standard 28, Grades 6-8: Understands what civil disobedience is, how it differs from other forms of protest, what its consequences might be, and circumstances under which it might be justified; Grades 9-12: Understands how individual participation in the political process relates to the realization of the fundamental values of American constitutional democracy.

Interdisciplinary Connections
Review “A Letter Read ‘Round the World” lesson provided for English teachers. English teachers could use the text of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to teach annotation and close reading skills. (This approach is fully explained in Reading Critically, Writing Well, Bedford/St. Martin’s Press.) A study of letters could be part of an Advanced Placement English Language and Composition course as well as ninth grade English.

Can also work well in a humanities class with both teachers having material for study of a core work.