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30-60 minutes
  • Civil Rights
  • Constitution
  • Journalism
  • Politics
  • 6-12

  1. Ask students what they know about when and why Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Key points include:
    • King was arrested on April 12, 1963, in Birmingham, Ala., by Bull Connor, the public safety commissioner, for parading without a permit and for defying a state order banning demonstrations.
    • The same day that King was arrested, a letter, signed by eight white ministers from Birmingham and titled “A Call for Unity,” was printed in The Birmingham News.
    • The letter called for an end to protests and demonstrations for civil rights in Birmingham.
    • King spent eight days in jail in Birmingham.  On April 16, 1963, King responded to “A Call for Unity” with his own call which has come to be known as his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
    • This letter was thought to be originally published in The Christian Century and was reprinted soon after in Atlantic Monthly magazine under the title “The Negro is Your Brother.”
  2. Distribute copies of the letters to each student.
  3. Give students time to read the letters.

  •  “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and “A Call for Unity” handouts (download), one each per student


  These prompts can be used for discussion or for short essay questions for homework.

  • Why were these writings — “A Call for Unity” in The Birmingham (Ala.) News and King’s response in The Christian Century and then reprinted in Atlantic Monthly — called “letters”?
  • Who was the audience for the ideas expressed in each?
  • King’s response was written in the margins of old newspapers that had to be smuggled out of his jail cell in segments by his lawyers.  Why didn’t King simply write his letter and send it to The Birmingham News? Do you think it would have been published there?
  • In King’s response he writes, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” What are the implications of this statement for all people in relation to social injustices?  Do you believe he is right? Why or why not?
  • What are the four basic steps King outlines for a nonviolent campaign? Would you add any additional steps?  What are some examples of people using these approaches today?
  • How does King define “just” laws and “unjust” laws?  Why do you agree or disagree with his reasoning? Are there laws today that you think are unjust? If so, why are they unjust and why do people continue to obey them?
  • King writes, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute understanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” What does he mean by this?  Do you agree with this statement? Explain.
  • What definition of “extremist” does King use when he gladly accepts the label?
  • If you were one of the clergymen who wrote “A Call to Unity,” how do you think you would view King’s letter? Why?

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