A 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 King’s letter 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.

Key Concepts

  • 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 assembly.

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.

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.

  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.

    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

  2. Give students copies of “First 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.” 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.” 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.

  4. 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.

  5. You may wish to assign groups to be experts for particular questions. Then open the discussion to the rest of the class.

  6. 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 language.

    • 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.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 service.

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
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)

Interdisciplinary Connections
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 source.