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Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr

Teacher Guide by Kristy Littlehale

Find this Common Core aligned Teacher Guide and more like it in our High School ELA Category!

Letter from a Birmingham Jail Lesson Plans

Student Activities for Letter from a Birmingham Jail Include:

"Letter from a Birmingham Jail" challenged the complacent attitudes of the local clergymen during the Civil Right’s movement, as Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in a jail cell for his peaceful protests against injustice. This letter connects with the important concepts of Transcendentalism as laid out by Henry David Thoreau in his jail-time piece, Resistance to Civil Government, including nonconformity, intuition, and self-reliance.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Concept Map for Transcendentalism in "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi were both influenced by the process of nonviolent protests set forth by Henry David Thoreau in his letter “Resistance to Civil Government”. As one of the key leaders of the Transcendental movement, Thoreau reflected some of the key themes of the movement that carried over into our modern consciousness. Sometimes it is hard for students to visualize what these key themes mean and how they connect to the world around them.

As a lesson, have your students create a storyboard for the three key Transcendental ideas that appear in King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Have them choose a part from the letter where that theme appears, and quote it below the picture that they create.

  • Nonconformity: refusal to accept or conform to common rules, beliefs, laws, or conventions
  • Intuition: the belief that every person possesses an understanding of right and wrong, of moral and immoral things
  • Self-Reliance: the practice of depending on one’s own capabilities to make decisions and meet one’s own needs
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Letter from a Birmingham Jail Themes

Valuable aspects of any literary work are its themes, symbols, and motifs. Part of the Common Core ELA standards is to introduce and explain these complex concepts. However, abstract ideas are often difficult for students to anatomize without assistance, especially in nonfiction.. Using a storyboard, students can visually demonstrate their understanding of these concepts, and master analysis of literary elements. For best practices, see our article with specific lesson plan steps on setting up your classroom and activities to teach themes, symbols, and motifs.


"Letter from a Birmingham Jail" Themes to Look For and Discuss

Injustice

A common theme throughout King’s letter is the idea of justice vs. injustice. He lays out several examples of just and unjust laws, along with the idea that the very existence of injustice serves to prompt him and other activists to fight against it to eventually wipe injustice out. He famously writes that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Without good men standing up in the face of injustice in the South, including white men, progress will be stalled.


Apathy

One thing that frustrates King throughout his letter is the lack of passion from the white moderate and the clergy in Birmingham. While he and other Civil Rights activists insist they have tried everything and now must resort to direct action, the white clergymen are pushing for patience and to allow the courts to figure things out. They see no need for the immediacy of King’s and his supporters’ actions.


Effectiveness of Nonviolent Protests

The first three steps of a nonviolent campaign serve to try to effect change through every non-extreme option, until all possibilities are exhausted and direct action is needed. King gives several examples of how those first three steps have been utilized and how they have failed; the only option left, he says, is direct action. He gives allusive examples in order to illustrate the effectiveness of strong leaders who disobeyed the status quo and made an impact on history.


Extremism vs. Moderation

The Alabama clergy leaders are concerned with actions from the activist that are deemed “too extreme”, and with King in particular as being an extremist. King refutes these claims by pointing out other leaders in history who may have been considered “extremists”, including Jesus, the Apostle Paul, Paul Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson. King is concerned that the African American community has been moderate for too long, and extreme measures now need to be taken to combat injustice.


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"Letter from a Birmingham Jail" Literary Elements


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When teaching speeches and letters, it’s helpful to refresh or introduce students to literary elements that enhance rhetorical strategies. After reading “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, ask your students to do a scavenger hunt using the storyboard creator. Give them the following six literary elements and have them create a storyboard that depicts and explains the use of each literary element in the letter: alliteration, metaphor, allusion, imagery, parallelism, personification.


Literary Elements King Uses in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

DESCRIPTION EXAMPLE
Alliteration Repetition of consonant sounds at the beginnings of words in a sentence or line “The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”
Metaphor An implied comparison between two things “But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom.”
Allusion Brief and indirect reference to well-known person, place, thing or idea, usually of historical, cultural or literary significance “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal…”
Imagery The use of descriptive or figurative language to create vivid mental imagery that appeals to the senses “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television...”
Parallelism A form of repetition in a sentence or thought that emphasizes an idea or deepens the reaction to the idea “...when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’...”
Personification Giving human-like characteristics to non-human objects or abstract ideas “For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity.”

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows five examples of literary elements in "Letter from a Birmingham Jail".


  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Identify use of literary elements in the text.
  3. Put the type of literary element in the title box.
  4. Give an example from the text in the description box.
  5. Illustrate the example using using a combination of scenes, characters, and items.



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Letter from a Birmingham Jail Rhetorical Strategies | Ethos Pathos Logos


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In high school, the ELA Common Core Standards require students to develop formal writing skills, creating essays and arguments that are well-thought-out, and syntactically varied. They also require students to effectively use persuasive writing strategies to defend a claim or point of view.

A key to strong persuasive writing the ability to dissect and validate, or debunk, other arguments. This requires a basic working knowledge of rhetoric. A great way to enhance students' understanding of effective arguments is to teach the Aristotelian concepts of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Students can then identify and analyze the effectiveness of these strategies in a work of literature, a speech, or a letter.

Having students create storyboards that show examples of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos is a great way to introduce and teach basic rhetoric in the classroom! Then, have them create a storyboard with 2-3 examples of each of the following types of rhetorical appeals from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Examples of Rhetorical Strategies in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Ethos/Expertise

“I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.”


Pathos/Appeal to Emotion

“In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise?”


Logos/Logic

“Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”


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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows examples of ethos, pathos, and logos from the text.


  1. Identify one example for each rhetorical strategy: ethos, pathos, and logos.
  2. Type the example into the description box under the cell.
  3. Illustrate the example using any combination of scenes, characters, and items.


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Letter from a Birmingham Jail Vocabulary Lesson Plan


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Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that use vocabulary from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Here is a list of a few vocabulary words commonly taught with the letter, and an example of a visual vocabulary board.

Example Vocabulary Words from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

  • negotiation
  • self-purification
  • civil disobedience
  • moral
  • moderate
  • oppression
  • demonstrator
  • segregate
  • tension
  • scintillate
  • categorize
  • humiliate
  • precipitate
  • commend
  • relegate
  • integrating
  • sanctimonious

In the vocabulary board, students can choose between coming up with their use of the vocabulary word, finding a specific example from the text, or depicting it without words.

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


Student Instructions

Demonstrate your understanding of the vocabulary words in Letter from a Birmingham Jail by creating visualizations.


  1. Choose three vocabulary words from the story and type them in the title boxes.
  2. Find the definition in a print or online dictionary.
  3. Write a sentence that uses the vocabulary word.
  4. Illustrate the meaning of the word in the cell using a combination of scenes, characters, and items.
    • Alternatively, use Photos for Class to show the meaning of the words with the search bar.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.



(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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A Quick Synopsis of "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

Eight clergy leaders from the city of Birmingham, Alabama wrote an open letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. criticizing King’s role in the nonviolent protests of the Birmingham Campaign which began on April 3, 1963. King was arrested on April 12th, and while in the jail, he penned his harsh, but wisely-worded response to the clergymen’s dissent. The clergymen argued for patience for disputes and issues to be decided in the courts, and that protests were a disruption, not a means to an end. They claimed that these protests were “untimely”, and they urged the “Negro community” to practice restraint.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was understandably dismayed by the attitude of the clergymen, even though he acknowledges that their intentions came from a good place. He begins the letter by explaining why he has come to Birmingham, by simply stating, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” He feels compelled, like the Apostle Paul, to carry the “gospel” of justice to all corners of the South. One of the most popular quotes from this letter is, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, a sentiment that has been echoed throughout popular social movements since.

King lays out the four basic steps of a nonviolent campaign, and then he describes how those steps have been employed in Birmingham so far. These steps include collecting facts, negotiation, self-purification and direct action. The first three steps have failed, so the only option left is direct action. King takes issue with the clergymen’s use of the word “untimely.” He states that for so many years, all he has heard is the word, “Wait.” Unfortunately, that usually turns into, “Never.” King is tired of waiting, because injustice has perpetuated in Birmingham for too long.

Finally, King directly addresses his disappointment with the white moderates and the white church leadership. He knows that they should be the African American community’s greatest ally, yet they tend to stand on the sidelines and not assist in any of the efforts to force a change. He criticizes their commendation of the Birmingham police force for maintaining order when in reality, they had released police dogs and violence onto the African American protesters. He wishes that they had turned their praise onto the demonstrators of Birmingham instead, suggesting further that the clergymen’s priorities in this struggle to eliminate injustice are misplaced.


Essential Questions for "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

  1. What responsibility does an individual have when he or she witnesses injustice?
  2. Should we rebel against laws that are unjust?
  3. What rhetorical strategies does King use that are particularly effective in communicating his primary points?
  4. Where do the elements of Transcendental thought appear in King’s letter?


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•   (English) Letter from a Birmingham Jail   •   (Español) Carta de una cárcel de Birmingham   •   (Français) Lettre d'une prison de Birmingham   •   (Deutsch) Brief aus einem Gefängnis in Birmingham   •   (Italiana) Lettera dalla prigione di Birmingham   •   (Nederlands) Brief van een Birmingham Jail   •   (Português) Carta de uma prisão de Birmingham   •   (עברית) מכתב מכלא בירמינגהם   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) رسالة من سجن برمنغهام   •   (हिन्दी) एक बर्मिंघम जेल से पत्र   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Письмо из тюрьмы Бирмингем   •   (Dansk) Brev fra en Birmingham Jail   •   (Svenska) Letter from Birmingham Jail   •   (Suomi) Kirje Birmingham Jail   •   (Norsk) Brev fra en Birmingham Jail   •   (Türkçe) Birmingham Hapishanesinden Mektup   •   (Polski) List z więzienia w Birmingham   •   (Româna) Scrisoare dintr-o închisoare din Birmingham   •   (Ceština) Dopis od vězení Birminghama   •   (Slovenský) List z väzenia v Birminghame   •   (Magyar) Levele a Birmingham Jail   •   (Hrvatski) Pismo iz zatvora iz Birminghama   •   (български) Писмо от затвора в Бирмингам   •   (Lietuvos) Laiškas iš Birmingemo kalėjime   •   (Slovenščina) Pismo Birmingham Jail   •   (Latvijas) Vēstule no Birmingemas cietumā   •   (eesti) Kiri Birmingham Jail