Themes in Letter From Birmingham Jail

This Storyboard That activity is part of the lesson plans for Letter from Birmingham Jail

Letter from a Birmingham Jail - Themes


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Activity Overview

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.

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.

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Template and Class Instructions

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that illustrates key themes in "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

  1. Use the template your teacher provided.
  2. Find two quotes from the letter where the theme appears.
  3. Write the name of the theme in the Row headers.
  4. Create two illustrations of the theme in the cells with 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.

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