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Teaching Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

written by: ThomasTrzyna • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/5/2012

The most important letter written in 20th century America is Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." How should you approach it in class?

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    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.

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    What's in the Letter?

    Dr. King's letter provides a synthesis of his thinking about non-violence, politics, philosophy and theology. He raises a series of overarching issues that redefine one major moral question after another. Here are some of the stages of his argument, as he guides his followers and answers his critics.

    To the claim of his opponents that he is an outsider, he says this, redefining the issue of citizenship. He explains his heritage and lays claim to his history as a Black American. He explains that his intellectual tradition is not limited by his race, but rather includes all the best thought of the world, from whatever culture or religion. And then he answers the question as to where he is a citizen and what defines his citizenship. He is a citizen wherever there are issues of justice to be addressed.

    To the question of what people should do in times of conflict, he lays out four steps that every student should memorize because the world would be a more orderly place if people in conflict would follow these steps rather than skipping one or two.

    Gather the facts to be sure of your position and to understand your opponents' positions.

    Negotiate with your opponents.

    Purify your motives. If you are angry, do not act out of anger. Be sure that you are negotiating in good will for a solution that will benefit all parties.

    Take direct action, such as street protests, only after negotiations have failed.

    Dr. King also answers a common objection that practitioners of non-violence are troublemakers because they point out that there are problems that must be addressed. The physician, he argues, is not responsible for the pain of the cure just because the physician points out that there is an illness that is likely to kill the patient.

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    Dr. King's Sources

    Teachers familiar with the literature and traditions of non-violence may wish to point out his indebtedness to other philosophers and theologians. King of course modeled his methods on the work of Mahatma Gandhi. Both Gandhi and King were inspired by Henry David Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience."

    King also worked with passages from the works of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, particularly where he argues that laws do not define justice: what is legal in a particular society can be profoundly unjust, such as laws that refused Black Americans the right to attend state universities in many parts of the country.

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    And for Religious Schools...

    Teachers at religious schools can use Dr. King's letter to explore additional features of his theology, such as King's view that unmerited suffering has the ability to transform evil people and their institutions, or King's view that Jesus was an extremist for love, while those who condemned him were extremists for hate. And therefore, in King's mind, it was acceptable to be called an extremist, so long as you knew what you were prepared to die for.

    Altogether, Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail offers teachers a rich opportunity to make connections among Civil Rights History and contemporary history, between American politics and the politics of other nations and movements, and to explore important issues in the ethics and history of non-violent movements for change.

    If you have not read the letter or considered using it for teaching, you are in for a transforming experience.


  • Teacher experience.