Teaching ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’

The open letter by Martin Luther King Jr. is an excellent resource for teaching persuasive writing and much more.

September 22, 2021
Everett Collection Historical / Alamy

If I could teach only one text, it would be Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (LBJ).

What first draws students is the author. Most have heard excerpts from “I Have a Dream,” but few of them know that King was also a powerful writer. My rural Southern students’ respect for King’s reputation is enough to pique their curiosity, but they are usually intimidated by the length of the piece (“This is a letter!”). To encourage them, I highlight that he wrote the letter while he was in solitary confinement. This fact creates another point of connection, especially for the African American males, many of whom have already had their own conflicts with law enforcement or almost certainly know someone who has.

This reading comes as the centerpiece of a unit on persuasive writing. LBJ is one of two great examples of persuasive writing, the other being the Declaration of Independence, which we read first. Like Thomas Jefferson, King uses classical logic, including a well-structured categorical syllogism, to defend his ideas.

The letter is divided into 10 sections, each either responding to a charge or making a challenge. Using the jigsaw reading technique, one or more students analyze each section of the letter, identifying the rhetorical techniques used and evaluating how successful that section might have been with the target audience. Then, putting our evaluations together, we look at what we have learned from King about earning respectful consideration for one’s ideas.

The rich historical allusions in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” entice and reward additional study. For example, King cites the long global tradition of civil disobedience, from Socrates to the Boston Tea Party. He also references a thoughtful blend of biblical and classical literature. He introduces my students to some of the great thinkers of the ages, including T. S. Elliot and Reinhold Niebuhr. Using these sources as markers, King places the civil rights struggle in its context as part of a longer, larger human story.

A Lesson in Civil Rights

LBJ is a primer on the civil rights movement, specifically 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, which was a critical point in the struggle for human rights. King methodically outlines the four steps taken by the civil rights activists during a campaign: collecting information, negotiations, self-purification, and direct action. The letter animates historical terms such as interposition, states’ rights, and nullification by showing the human cost of social change. Students marvel that after failing to achieve change through talks, the activists spent days or even weeks training themselves not to respond violently to brutal treatment.

Since the events of 1963 are ancient history to today’s students, I usually preface the study of the letter with a discussion of the documentary Mighty Times: The Children’s March, which is available from Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance). The documentary highlights the role of school-age children in the fight against segregation in Birmingham. Along with King, thousands of students volunteered to violate the city’s segregation laws and be jailed, some for up to two weeks. My students are particularly impressed that teenagers like themselves played such key and sacrificial roles in the fight for equality.

Exemplary Writing

As a writing text, LBJ is elegant and passionate. It contains a challenging range of vocabulary, grammatical structures, stylistic elements, and ideas. For instance, in response to the charge that the Black people of Birmingham were being premature and impatient in their use of demonstrations to end segregation, King vividly transports the readers into the daily life of a Black father in the Jim Crow South using a stream-of-consciousness technique:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But… when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people…

In passages such as this, I show students the value of detailed evidence and appeal to empathy in support of a persuasive point.

Likewise, answering the charge that he is a political extremist, King first redefines himself as “stand[ing] in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community.” Then, with rhetorical deftness, he realigns himself and the civil rights movement alongside some of history’s most celebrated extremists, including Martin Luther and Thomas Jefferson.

One of the most difficult concepts to teach novice writers about persuasion is the importance of writing for a specific audience. King writes to an ecumenical group of fellow clergymen, who had written a public letter deploring the use of direct, nonviolent actions. He establishes both his connection and credibility with his readers, while also chiding them for their own hypocrisy to the mission of the Christian church (with a nod to Greek mythology).

I appreciate that “Letter from Birmingham Jail” easily lends itself to many teaching approaches, to integrated subject content, and to student creativity. As a literary work, it can be a launching point, a bridge, or a culminating piece. There always seems to be more to discover and never enough time, which is why I continue to revisit it alongside my students.

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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