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Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

On January 18, the United States will pause to reflect on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the role he played in leading the Civil Rights Movement. The Movement firmly grounded its appeals for liberty and equality in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Rather than rejecting an America that discriminated against a particular race, King fought for America to fulfill its own promise that “all men are created equal.” In this eLesson, students will analyze King’s accomplishments and the ideas he used to advance the cause of racial equality.

Resources and Activities

Lesson Plan

Explain the background of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to students:

In April 1963, King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama after he and other black demonstrators violated a court order to halt protest marches and sit-ins. While King was in jail, eight white clergy published an open letter criticizing King and black protestors, calling their activities “unwise and untimely.” The clergy did not oppose the protestors’ demands but disagreed with the protestors’ methods. “When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets,” the clergy wrote. King disagreed and penned his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” arguing that black Americans had waited long enough for equal rights, and that unjust laws were invalid laws.

After providing contextual background, assign students to read “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This may be done in-class or as a homework assignment.

Explain the meaning of pathos and Pathos is a mode of argument that is designed to arouse a strong emotional response. Logos is a form of argument that appeals to reason. You may provide examples of statements that use these rhetorical approaches.

Divide the class into small groups, and give each group a large poster board. Have students divide the board into two columns, labeling one column “Pathos” and the other “Logos.”

Once they have read the letter, have students record specific instances of pathos and logos they came across while reading. Students should annotate each instance with a page or paragraph number.

After students are finished recording their findings, display the poster boards around the room and have students spend a few minutes viewing each group’s results. Ask the class if they believe King used more logos or pathos in his letter.

Hold a class discussion using these questions:

  1. What does King mean by the term “direct action”? What are some examples of direct action? What is an example of a form of protest that is the opposite of direct action? What does King say is the purpose of direct action?
  2. Why does King say that oppressed peoples must demand their freedom rather than wait for it? What, in his view, did “wait” mean when Southern leaders told blacks to wait for equal rights?
  3. How does King describe segregation on an everyday basis? How were blacks treated under segregation? How did blacks feel about the treatment they received?
  4. At the time, King said there were three main “forces” or ideological groups within the black community. How does King describe each group? Which group does he say he belongs to? What sets his group apart from the others?