A Revolutionary Document
Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" offers rich opportunities for teachers of history and English to explore the uses of literature, a critical moment in American Civil Rights History, and many aspects of philosophy, ethics, and literary theory--all depending on how far the teacher wants to go or the class can follow.
This relatively brief document can be introduced in many ways.
First, Dr. King wrote it at a dark moment in the Civil Rights Movement, when he had allowed himself to be arrested and imprisoned, and it was not clear whether he would get out of jail. He had taken that step because his campaign in Birmingham had stalled. The forces ranged against him by the police were shutting down his protests, and he was not sure what to do next. Just at this moment, a group of Christian and Jewish religious leaders in the Southern United States wrote him a letter asking him to quit. He was an outside agitator. It was too soon to push for more concessions from the segregationists. He ought to wait and tell other to wait as well.
Second, the letter can be introduced in terms of its historical genre. Have your students noticed how in anthologies of American literature, the Revolutionary period is presented through tracts, political documents, and autobiographies rather than through novels and poetry? What's the connection between a political situation and a literary genre? Dr. King knew, because the New Testament is similar to the literature of the American Revolution. The New Testament is a collection of biographies of a religious leader, plus tracts and letters written by his followers to explain how to build the movement. Dr. King took a page from St. Paul and sat in his prison cell in Birmingham and wrote a letter intended to provide guidance for the movement, no matter what happened to him.
Third, some teachers may wish to look at King's letter in terms of Frantz Fanon's theory of revolutionary literature. Fanon observed that people in revolutionary times make use of almost ephemeral kinds of literature, such as street performances of plays, letters, inspiring biographies of revolutionary martyrs, manifestoes explaining political positions, and so on.