Photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Credit: Courtesy of the National Archives.
"I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek." So wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1963 as he served a ten-day jail term for violating a court injunction against any "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing" in Birmingham. He came to Alabama's largest city to lead an Easter weekend protest and boycott of downtown stores as a way of forcing white city leaders to negotiate a settlement of black citizens' grievances. King wrote his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in response to a public statement by eight white clergymen appealing to the local black population to use the courts and not the streets to secure civil rights. The clergymen counseled "law and order and common sense," not demonstrations that "incite to hatred and violence," as the most prudent means to promote justice. This criticism of King was elaborated the following year by a fellow Baptist minister, Joseph H. Jackson (president of the National Baptist Convention from 1953–1982), who delivered a speech counseling blacks to reject "direct confrontation" and "stick to law and order."
By examining King's famous essay in defense of nonviolent protest, along with two significant criticisms of his direct action campaign, this lesson will help students assess various alternatives for securing civil rights for black Americans in a self-governing society.
Was King's nonviolent resistance to segregation laws the best means of securing civil rights for black Americans in the 1960s?
After completing this lesson, students should be able to
If students know anything about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s, it will probably be Martin Luther King, Jr.'s role in leading the Movement along the path of nonviolent resistance against racial segregation. Most likely, they will have seen or read his "I Have a Dream" speech (August 28, 1963), delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which closes with the famous line, "Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" Next to the "I Have a Dream" speech, King's most famous writing is his "Letter from Birmingham Jail." He began writing the lengthy essay while jailed over Easter weekend in 1963. He eventually arranged its publication as part of a public relations strategy to bring national attention to the struggle for civil rights in the South.
The Birmingham campaign of March and April 1963 followed a less successful protest the previous year in Albany, Georgia. Albany police chief Laurie Pritchett did not want to draw media attention to the Albany protest led by King and local citizens. He dispersed jailed protesters to surrounding jails to avoid overcrowding, and had local city officials post bail for King any time he got arrested. King eventually left Albany in August 1962 when the protest movement stalled for months and when the city reneged on its promise to desegregate bus and train stations. Discouraged by the Movement's inability to provoke a reaction that would precipitate change, King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference decided to accept the invitation of Birmingham activist Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth to agitate for change there. In Birmingham they devised a new strategy called "Project C" (for "confrontation").
Birmingham was Alabama's largest city, but its 40 percent black population suffered stark inequities in education, employment, and income. In 1961, when Freedom Riders were mobbed in the city bus terminal, Birmingham drew unwelcome national attention. Moreover, recent years saw so many bombings in its black neighborhoods that went unsolved that the city earned the nickname "Bombingham." In 1962, Birmingham even closed public parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, and golf courses to avoid federal court orders to desegregate. Nevertheless, the fight to hold onto segregationist practices began to wear on some whites; the question remained, how best to address the concerns of local black citizens?
When eight white clergymen (Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish) learned of King's plans to stage mass protests in Birmingham during the Easter season in 1963, they published a statement voicing disagreement with King's attempt to reform the segregated city. It appeared in the Birmingham News on Good Friday, the very day King was jailed for violating the injunction against marching. The white clergymen complained that local black citizens were being "directed and led in part by outsiders" to engage in demonstrations that were "unwise and untimely." The prudence of the Movement's actions in Birmingham was also called into question by local merchants who believed the new city government and mayor—replacing the staunch segregationist Eugene "Bull" Connor (the commissioner of public safety who later employed fire hoses and police dogs against protesters, many of whom were high school and college students)—would offer a new opportunity to address black concerns. Even the Justice Department under President John F. Kennedy urged King to leave Birmingham. The clergymen advised locals to follow "the principles of law and order and common sense," to engage in patient negotiation, and, if necessary, seek redress in the courts. They called street protests and economic boycotts "extreme measures" and, thus, saw them as imprudent means of redressing grievances. Finally, if peaceful protests sparked hatred and riots, they would hold the protesters responsible for the violence that ensued.
In spite of the court injunction, King went ahead with his protest march on Good Friday, and was promptly arrested, along with his close friend and fellow Baptist preacher Ralph Abernathy and fifty-two other protestors. King served his jail sentence in solitary confinement, but soon began reading press reports of the Birmingham campaign in newspapers smuggled into his cell by his lawyer. Both local and national media expressed greater optimism for reform from the new city government and lesser sympathy for King and his nonviolent, direct action campaign. But what irked him most was the criticism from the Birmingham clergymen, most of whom had actually criticized Governor George Wallace's inauguration proclamation of "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" So King began to write, using the margins of the Birmingham News.
King's reply to the clergymen's public letter of complaint grew to almost 7,000 words, and presented a detailed response to the criticisms of his fellow men of the cloth. Employing theological and philosophical arguments, as well as reflections on American and world history, King defended the legitimacy of his intervention to desegregate Birmingham. He explained how the nonviolent movement employed peaceful mass protest and even civil disobedience to bring pressure to bear on the social and political status quo. Given that the immediate audience of his letter were religious leaders, his letter made numerous references to biblical and historical events and figures they might find persuasive. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" was a plea for a more robust and relevant participation of white church leaders (and members) in the affairs of this world, starting with the just complaints of their black neighbors and fellow Christians.
The following year, a longstanding critic* of King delivered an address that focused on an alternative way for black Americans to secure progress in civil rights. Dr. Joseph H. Jackson, president of the National Baptist Convention, was known as "the black pope" because of his leadership of the largest religious organization of blacks in the United States. Jackson thought King's civil disobedience and nonviolent but confrontational methods undermined the very rule of law that black Americans desperately needed. Appealing to the historic contribution of blacks to the development and prosperity of America, Jackson counseled that less controversial and provocative means should be adopted in the struggle for civil rights. He also encouraged them not to neglect their "ability, talent, genius, and capacity" in efforts of self-help and self-improvement. Citing the 1954 Brown decision and 1964 Civil Rights Act as important signs of progress and hope for black Americans, Jackson argued that to advance in America, blacks had to work with and not against the structures and ideals of the nation.
* In 1961, after failing to oust Jackson from the presidency of the National Baptist Convention, King broke away from the organization and founded a rival group, the Progressive National Baptist Convention. In 1967, Jackson would publish Unholy Shadows and Freedom's Holy Light, which reaffirmed his "law and order' approach to the civil rights struggle.
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and the public statement of the white Birmingham clergymen make a natural pairing for a discussion of the pros and cons of nonviolent resistance. However, because the "Letter to Martin Luther King from a Group of Clergymen" is a relatively short document compared with King's 6,800-word reply, this lesson includes a longer statement critical of King's campaign of mass protest and civil disobedience: Joseph H. Jackson's 1964 Address to the National Baptist Convention.
This lesson contains written primary source documents, photographs, sound recordings, and worksheets, available both online and in the Text Document that accompanies this lesson. Students can read and analyze source materials entirely online, or do some of the work online and some in class from printed copies.
Read over the lesson. Bookmark the websites that you will use. If students will be working from printed copies in class, download the documents from the Text Document and duplicate as many copies as you will need. If students need practice in analyzing primary source documents, excellent resource materials are available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Learning Page of the Library of Congress. Helpful Document Analysis Worksheets may be found at the Digital Classroom site of the National Archives.
Note: Discussion of the Civil Rights Movement can elicit strong responses from individuals, even today. Teachers should be aware of this and closely monitor class discussion, particularly when students read the Birmingham Segregation Ordinances and when they encounter derogatory language used to describe different groups of people during this time period. This language is present (by way of example) in King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." To promote honest and courteous discussion of this lesson, teachers should remind students to be diligent in providing evidence for their statements.
This activity is arranged around the following primary sources:
In addition to primary source documents, this activity contains questions that will help students interpret the content. The questions are included below for review and are also found on pages 5, 11–12, and 17–18 of the Text Document.
Divide the class into small groups in which they will begin working on the questions together, and then assign the unfinished questions for homework.
To provide some background on the sort of discrimination faced by African-Americans in Birmingham (as well as in most of the South), have students read Sections 369, 597, 359, and 1413 of the Birmingham Segregation Ordinances (1951) at the EDSITEment-reviewed site "American Studies at the University of Virginia." The relevant sections from the 1951 Ordinances, found on pages 1–2 of the Text Document, can also be printed out and distributed to students.
Then have students read the "Letter to Martin Luther King from a Group of Clergymen" (April 12, 1963) and answer the questions that follow (also available in worksheet form on page 5 of the Text Document). A link to the text of the "Letter to Martin Luther King" can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site "Teaching American History." The letter is also included in the Text Document on pages 3–4, and can be printed out for student use.
Next, for an introduction to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s stirring rhetoric, have students listen to a brief excerpt from his "I Have a Dream" speech. Go to the EDSITEment-reviewed site "Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project: Popular Requests" and click the Quicktime or Realmedia link for a three-minute, audio excerpt from "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."
Next have students read King's reply to the Alabama clergymen, known as the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," and answer the questions that follow below (available in worksheet form on pages 11–12 of the Text Document). A link to the full text of King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site "Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project." For purposes of this lesson, use the excerpts from the essay, located on pages 6–10 of the Text Document.
For a visual image of a police response to nonviolent resistance, described in King's letter, have students access online the famous Charles Moore photograph of a water hydrant being turned against Birmingham demonstrators. This photograph can be found at a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed "American Studies of the University of Virginia." (To view additional photographs in the Charles Moore collection, scroll down to Section VIII, Extending the Lesson, and click on the link provided there.)
Finally, have students read Joseph H. Jackson's "Annual Address to the National Baptist Convention" (September 10, 1964) and answer the questions that follow (available on pages 17–18 of the Text Document). A link to the full text of Jackson's "Annual Address to the National Baptist Convention" can be found at Teaching American History. For a shorter version (about half the length), print out and distribute an excerpted version on pages 13–16 of the Text Document.
For a visual image of the pursuit of civil rights by following principles of law and order, have students access online a Charles Moore photograph of the registering of black voters in Mississippi. This photograph can be found at Powerful Days in Black and White, linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed "American Studies of the University of Virginia." (To view additional photographs in the Charles Moore collection, scroll down to Extending the Lesson, and click on the link provided there.)
Divide students into two teams for a debate based on the sources they studied in the previous activity. One team will represent King's nonviolent resistance and the other team will represent the clergymen's and Jackson's "law and order" position. Inform students at the outset that they will be given participation points for listening, helping to develop team arguments, and questioning/dialoguing with the opposing side.
Arrange desks so that each team faces the other. Each team chooses three speakers, one to make the main points of the argument (principal speaker), one to focus attention on one or two key points (second speaker), and one to summarize the argument (summarizer).
Armed with their answers to the questions from Activity 1, each side should spend one 45-minute class period developing arguments and preparing speakers. If the class is too large to make this feasible, have each side divide into three groups, with one speaker in each group. Each small group will then help its speaker to develop his or her argument.
During the following class session give the principal speaker for each side an allotted amount of time to make his or her speech. Do the same for the second speakers (usually less time than the first). Then throw the debate open so that team members from each side can question or make comments to the other side. Alternate this process back and forth several times, as interest requires or time permits, so that each side has an equal chance to state its views. The summarizer concludes the debate by making the team's best case, using the earlier input from his team and the strongest points of the team's two speakers and the open debate.
Allow students additional discussion time, if needed and time permits. Tell them that they will be making a decision about which side of the debate they found more persuasive. Point out that it is quite possible to argue from one perspective in the debate, but to actually hold the opposing view as a matter of preference, principle, or belief.
Instruct students to put themselves in the position of someone who must decide which course of action to take: the path of following "law and order" or the path of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience.
Instruct students to give a one- or two-paragraph answer to each of the following questions:
The Civil Rights Movement was widely photographed by photojournalists, and these photos, printed in the media, in turn acted as a catalyst to propel the Movement forward and give it more favorable reception in the realm of public opinion. One such group of photographs is the Charles Moor Collection, located at "Powerful Days in Black and White," linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at the University of Virginia site. Students may view additional photographs capturing images of segregated public places at the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photographers site, linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory site at the Library of Congress.
Students may learn more about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the site of the 1963 Birmingham protest, by visiting the following EDSITEment-reviewed National Park Service sites:
3 class periods