Closer Readings Commentary

Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Martin Luther King's most well-known 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 Letter has become a modern classic. It has been called the most important written document of the civil rights era and has been compared to Abraham Lincoln’s "Gettysburg Address" and John Kennedy’s First Inaugural in its literary and historical significance. It is recommended reading for Grades 9 and 10 on the Common Core English Language Arts State Standards, where it is listed as an exemplary text for teaching the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.9 Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”), including how they address related themes and concepts.

EDSITEment’s lesson Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nonviolent Resistance centers on the reasoning and rhetoric embodied in the Letter. It highlights King’s powerful argument for using civil disobedience and contains primary source documents including audio and images, student worksheetsbackground information for teachers, and suggested activities. The lesson helps balance the Common Core alignment with student engagement and provides rich contextualization to help prep for the lesson and pose significant questions for students, and guide students’ own questions as they arise.

The Background of the Letter

King wrote his Letter 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. The lesson itself offers a carefully-edited version of the 7,000 word Letter that retains all of the original language and argument in a structure conducive to classroom time constraints. Well-crafted text-based questions direct student attention toward close analysis of King’s major arguments:

  • Does King consider himself an "outsider" by staging
    a civil rights protest in Birmingham? List the three reasons he gives in response to this criticism.
  • If King admits that breaking laws in order to change them is
    "a legitimate concern," how does he still justify civil disobedience?
  • List two reasons for his defense of civil disobedience, and explain how King
    thought a law can be disobeyed without leading to anarchy
  • How does King's appeal to "eternal and natural law"
    help him examine and judge human laws?
  • Why is King hopeful about the prospects for equal rights for
    black Americans despite his imprisonment and the injustices around him ? Give
    specific examples and reasons he mentions to support your answer.

The Challenge: Differentiating Instruction

Common Core’s big challenge for teachers of this complex and challenging text is keeping the level of classroom discourse high while differentiating instruction so that all students will approach the Letter with eager and interested eyes. The good news is: the standards encourage a variety of reading groupings—students can read alone, with others, in pairs, or have passages they read on their own be reread aloud by you. Speaking and listening skills are also valued. A seminal text as complex as King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” demands a slower-paced close reading “seminar like” experience, but the gains in student’s insight and intellectual self confidence are considerable.

EDSITEment’s lesson includes a whole-class activity that asks students to apply their knowledge of King’s letter and that of his critics' arguments to a critical classroom debate about the merits of nonviolent resistence vs a “law and order” approach to social change. One team represents King's nonviolent resistance and the other team represents the white clergymen and Reverend Joseph H. Jackson's "law and order" positions. The students will be given participation points for listening, helping to develop team arguments, and questioning/dialoguing with the opposing side thus meeting the anchor requirement of the Common Core ELA standards having to do with speaking and listening.

The Great Conversation

From here, you might want to create a comparative exercise by directing students to several of the other seminal voices in the “Great Conversation” about law and justice. In Socrates and the Law: Argument in a Athenian Jail, the founder of Western political philosophy explores the conflicting claims of law and conscience. In Henry David Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience, the Massachusetts gadfly argues that there are occasions when demands of the moral conscience trump the obligation to obey the law.

Coupled with the wide range of supplemental resources also available on EDSITEment, such as the Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the American Constitutionalism website , these tools can be used to guide students to making that cognitive leaps from reading what is explicitly stated to making meaningful inferences, synthesizing information, and applying critical understanding to other conversations in literature, philosophy, history, and human rights. All of this will ensure that students’ broader discussions about humanities subjects are diligently informed by the arguments made in individual humanities texts.

EDSITEment also offers a variety of engaging AND rigorous resources on Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights,and the Letter itself to help you explore this text.