"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
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
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.
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.
[ELA-Literacy/RL/6/4] Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone
[ELA-Literacy/RL/7/4] Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama
[ELA-Literacy/L/6/6] Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases; gather vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression
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”
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.”
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.”
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…”
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...”
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’...”
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.”
[ELA-Literacy/RI/9-10/1] Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
[ELA-Literacy/RI/9-10/6] Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.
[ELA-Literacy/RI/9-10/8] Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.
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”
“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?”
“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.”
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”
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.
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"
What responsibility does an individual have when he or she witnesses injustice?
Should we rebel against laws that are unjust?
What rhetorical strategies does King use that are particularly effective in communicating his primary points?
Where do the elements of Transcendental thought appear in King’s letter?