Two Faces of the Civil Rights Movement Lesson Plan #1: Martin Luther King, Jr and Nonviolent Resistance: To Obey or Not to Obey?

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Two Faces of the Civil Rights Movement
Lesson Plan #1: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nonviolent Resistance: To Obey or Not to Obey?

I. Introduction
“I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” So wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1963 as he served a ten-day jail term for violating a court injunction against any march or demonstration. He came to Birmingham to lead an Easter weekend protest and boycott of downtown stores as a way of forcing white city leaders to negotiate a settlement of black citizens’ grievances. King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to a public letter from eight Alabama clergymen (Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish) appealing to Birmingham citizens to use the courts and not the streets to secure civil rights. They counseled “law and order and common sense,” not demonstrations that “incite to hatred and violence,” as the most prudent means to promote justice. This criticism of King was elaborated the following year by a fellow Baptist minister, Joseph H. Jackson (president of the National Baptist Convention from 1953-1982), who delivered a speech counseling blacks to reject “direct confrontation” and “stick to law and order.”
By examining King’s most famous essay, along with two significant criticisms of his nonviolent campaign, this lesson will help students assess various alternatives for securing civil rights for black Americans in a self-governing society.

II. Guiding Question
Was King’s nonviolent resistance to segregation laws the best means of securing civil rights for black Americans in the 1960s?

III. Learning Objectives
After completing this lesson, students should be able to:

  1. Explain Martin Luther King, Jr.’s concept of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience.

  2. Articulate the primary concerns of Alabama clergymen who rejected King’s intervention in Birmingham’s racial conflicts in 1963.

  3. Describe how King defended his nonviolent campaign from the Alabama clergymen.

  4. Explain why the president of the National Baptist Convention, Joseph H. Jackson, thought King’s protest methods were unproductive and un-American.

  5. Articulate the alternatives Joseph H. Jackson recommended to secure civil rights for black Americans.

  6. Evaluate the merits of the argument on both sides of the debate and decide which view could best secure civil rights for black Americans.

IV. Background Information for the Teacher
The Birmingham campaign of Easter 1963 followed a less successful protest the previous year in Albany, Georgia. Albany police chief Laurie Pritchett did not want to draw media attention to the Albany protest led by King and local citizens. He dispersed jailed protesters to surrounding jails to avoid overcrowding, and had local white city officials post bail for King any time he got arrested. King eventually left Albany in August 1962 when the protest movement stalled for months with no significant progress. Discouraged by the Movement’s inability to provoke a reaction that would precipitate change, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference eventually set their sights on Birmingham, Alabama to implement a new strategy they called “Project C” (for “confrontation”).
When local clergymen (Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish) learned of King’s plans to stage a mass protest in Birmingham, they published an open “Letter to Martin Luther King” in the Birmingham News voicing disagreement over the people and the methods King used to reform the segregated city. They complained that local black citizens were being “directed and led in part by outsiders” to engage in demonstrations that were “unwise and untimely.” The clergymen advised locals to follow “the principles of law and order and common sense,” to engage in patient negotiation, and, if necessary, seek redress in the courts. They did not believe “extreme measures” like street protests and economic boycotts were the most prudent means of redressing grievances, and argued that if peaceful protests sparked hatred and riots, the protesters would be responsible for the violence that ensued.
In spite of the clergymen’s letter, and a court injunction, King went ahead with his protest march on Good Friday, and was promptly arrested. While serving his jail sentence King began writing a reply to the clergymen’s public letter of complaint. His “letter” grew to almost 7,000 words, and presented a detailed response to the criticisms of his fellow men of the cloth. Employing theological and philosophical arguments, as well as reflections on American and world history, King defended the legitimacy of his intervention to desegregate Birmingham. He explained how the nonviolent movement employed peaceful mass protest and even civil disobedience to bring pressure to bear on the social and political status quo. Given that the immediate audience of his letter were religious leaders, his letter made numerous references to biblical and historical events and figures they might find persuasive. At bottom, King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was a plea for a more robust and relevant participation of white church leaders (and members) in the affairs of this world, starting with the just complaints of their black neighbors and fellow Christians.
The following year, a longstanding critic* of King delivered an address that focused on an alternative way for black Americans to secure progress in civil rights. Dr. Joseph H. Jackson, president of the National Baptist Convention (NBC), was known as “the black pope” because of his leadership of the largest religious organization of blacks in the United States. Jackson thought King’s nonviolent but confrontational methods undermined the very rule of law that black Americans desperately needed. Appealing to the historic contribution of blacks to the development and prosperity of America, Jackson counseled that less controversial and provocative means should be adopted in the struggle for civil rights. He also encouraged them not to neglect their “ability, talent, genius, and capacity” in efforts of self-help and self-improvement. Citing the 1954 Brown decision and 1964 Civil Rights Act as important signs of progress and hope for black Americans, Jackson argued that to advance in America, blacks had to work with and not against the structures and ideals of the nation.
* In 1961, after failing to oust Jackson from the presidency of the National Baptist Convention, King broke away from the organization and founded a rival group, the Progressive National Baptist Convention. In 1967, Jackson would publish Unholy Shadows and Freedom’s Holy Light, which reaffirmed his “law and order’ approach to the civil rights struggle.

V. Preparing to Teach This Lesson
If students know anything about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, it will probably be Martin Luther King, Jr.’s role in leading the Movement along the path of nonviolent resistance against racial segregation. Most likely, they will have seen or read his “I Have a Dream” speech (August 28, 1963), delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which closes with the famous line, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Next to the “I Have a Dream” speech, King’s most famous writing is his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He began writing the lengthy essay as he sat in solitary confinement on Good Friday, April 12. He eventually arranged its publication as part of a public relations strategy to bring national attention to the struggle for civil rights in the South.
King’s “letter” and the letter to King from the Alabama clergymen make a natural pairing for a discussion of the pros and cons of nonviolent resistance. However, because the “Letter to Martin Luther King from a Group of Clergymen” is a relatively short document compared with King’s 6,800-word reply, this lesson includes a longer statement critical of King’s campaign of civil disobedience: Joseph H. Jackson’s 1964 Address to the National Baptist Convention.
This lesson contains written primary source documents, photographs, sound recordings, and worksheets, available both online and in the Text Document that accompanies this lesson. Students can read and analyze source materials entirely online, or do some of the work online and some in class from printed copies.
Read over the lesson. Bookmark the websites that you will use. If students will be working from printed copies in class, download the documents from the Text Document and duplicate as many copies as you will need. If students need practice in analyzing primary source documents, excellent resource materials are available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Learning Page of the Library of Congress: Helpful Document Analysis Worksheets may be found at the site of the National Archives:
Note: Discussion of the Civil Rights Movement can elicit strong responses from individuals, even today. Teachers should be aware of this and closely monitor class discussion, particularly when addressing the derogatory language used to describe different groups of people during this time period. This language is present (by way of example) in King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

VI. Suggested Activities
Activity #1: Understanding the Primary Sources: What Do They Tell You?

Activity #2: “Law and Order” or “Nonviolent Resistance”?

Activity #1: Understanding the Primary Sources: What Do They Tell You?
This activity is arranged around the following primary sources:
1. “Letter to Martin Luther King from a Group of Clergymen” (April 12, 1963)

2. (a) Birmingham Segregation Ordinances (1951)

(b) Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963)

(c) Photograph of fire hoses turned against Birmingham demonstrators

3. (a) Joseph H. Jackson’s “Annual Address to the National Baptist Convention”

(September 10, 1964)

(b) Photograph of voter registration in Mississippi
In addition to primary source documents, this activity contains questions that will help students interpret the content. The questions are included below for review and are also found on pages 3, 11-12, and 17-18 of the Text Document.
Divide the class into small groups where they will begin working on the questions together, and then assign the unfinished questions for homework.
First, have students read the “Letter to Martin Luther King from a Group of Clergymen” (April 12, 1963) and answer the questions that follow (also available in worksheet form on page 3 of the Text Document). A link to the text of the “Letter to Martin Luther King” can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site “Teaching American History”: The letter is also included in the Text Document on pages 1-2, and can be printed out for student use.

  1. In 1963, what two recommendations did a group of Alabama clergymen propose to resolve the racial conflict in Birmingham, Alabama?

  2. Identify two or three criticisms they gave of the political demonstrations and protests taking place in Birmingham.

  3. What praise did they give to “local news media and law enforcement officials” for their conduct during the demonstrations?

Next, for an introduction to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s stirring rhetoric, have students listen to a brief excerpt from his “I Have a Dream” speech. Go to the EDSITEment-reviewed site “Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project: Popular Requests” and click the Quicktime or Realmedia link for a three-minute, audio excerpt from “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

So that students have some background on the sort of discrimination faced by African-Americans in Birmingham (as well as in most of the South), they should also read Sections 369, 597, 359, and 1413 of the Birmingham Segregation Ordinances (1951) at the EDSITEment-reviewed site “American Studies at the University of Virginia”: The relevant sections from the 1951 Ordinances, found on pages 4-5 of the Text Document, can also be printed out and distributed to students.
Next have students read King’s reply to the Alabama clergymen, known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and answer the questions that follow below (available in worksheet form on pages 11-12 of the Text Document). A link to the full text of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site “Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project”: For purposes of this lesson, use the excerpts from the essay, located on pages 6-10 of the Text Document.

  1. Does King consider himself an “outsider” by staging a civil rights protest in Birmingham? List three reasons he gives in response to this criticism.

  2. Explain the four-step process King outlines for their nonviolent campaign. [Note: for an example of the nonviolent mindset King wanted to instill in his protest movement, have students read the Commitment Card that participants were asked to sign in preparation for the protest, which is located at the “Teaching American History” site:]

  1. Does King recognize the danger of breaking laws in order to change them? How does he connect the means of civil disobedience with its aim in order to justify this form of nonviolent resistance?

  2. Does King think the tension stirred up by his protest movement helps or hinders social and political reform?

  3. How does King respond to the charge that he is an extremist? Whom does he identify as the real extremists?

  4. Why is King hopeful about the prospects for equal rights for black Americans? Give specific examples and reasons he mentions to support your answer.

For a visual image of a police response to nonviolent resistance, described in King’s letter, have students access online the famous Charles Moore photograph of a water hydrant being turned against Birmingham demonstrators. This photograph can be found at, linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed “American Studies of the University of Virginia”: (To view additional photographs in the Charles Moore collection, scroll down to Section VIII, Extending the Lesson, and click on the link provided there.)
Finally, have students read Joseph H. Jackson’s “Annual Address to the National Baptist Convention” (September 10, 1964) and answer the questions that follow (available on pages 17-18 of the Text Document). A link to the full text of Jackson’s “Annual Address to the National Baptist Convention” can be found at Teaching American History:

For a shorter version (about half the length), print out and distribute an excerpted version on pages 13-16 of the Text Document.

  1. Does Jackson think “street marches, boycotts, and picket lines” on behalf of civil rights are productive or destructive, positive or negative, means of securing equal rights? How does his view of America, and especially the role of black Americans in its development, inform his reaction to the mass protest movement?

  2. Why does Jackson disagree with civil disobedience, which he calls “open opposition to the laws of the land”?

  3. How do his references to Thurgood Marshall’s victory in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 strengthen his argument? [Note: Students can find helpful background on the 1954 Brown decision at “Teaching With Documents: Documents Related to Brown v. Board of Education” at the EDSITEment-reviewed National Archives site:

For a brief explanation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, students can read “Congress and the Civil Rights Act” at the EDSITEment-reviewed National Archives site:]

  1. What recommendations does he make to black Americans for securing equal rights?

  2. Why does he think that direct confrontation is not likely to be successful?

For a visual image of the pursuit of civil rights by following principles of law and order, have students access online a Charles Moore photograph of the registering of black voters in voter registration in Mississippi. This photograph can be found at, linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed “American Studies of the University of Virginia”: (To view additional photographs in the Charles Moore collection, scroll down to Section VIII, Extending the Lesson, and click on the link provided there.)
Activity #2: “Law and Order” or “Nonviolent Resistance”?

Divide students into two teams for a debate based on the sources they studied in the previous activity. One team will represent King’s nonviolent resistance and the other team will represent the clergymen’s and Jackson’s “law and order” position. Arrange desks so that each team faces the other. Each team chooses three speakers, one to make the main points of the argument (principal speaker), one to focus attention on one or two key points (second speaker), and one to summarize the argument (summarizer).

Armed with their answers to the questions from Activity #1, each side should spend one 45-minte class period developing their arguments and preparing its speakers. If the class is too large to make this feasible, have each side divide into three groups, with one speaker in each group. Each small group will then help its speaker to develop his or her argument.
During the following class session give the principal speaker for each side an allotted amount of time to make his or her speech. Do the same for the second speakers (usually less time than the first). Then throw the debate open so that team members from each side can question or make comments to the other side. Alternate this process back and forth several times, as interest requires or time permits, so that each side has an equal chance to state their views. The summarizer concludes the debate by making the team's best case, using the earlier input from his team and the strongest points of the team's two speakers and the open debate.
Allow students additional discussion time, if needed and time permits. Tell them that they will be making a decision about which side of the debate they found more persuasive. Point out that it is quite possible to argue from one perspective in the debate, but to actually hold the opposing view as a matter of preference, principle, or belief.

VII. Assessment
Assessment #1: To Obey the Laws of the Land or To Resist Them Peacefully—That Is Your Question!
Instruct students to put themselves in the position of someone who must decide which course of action to take: the path of following “law and order” or the path of nonviolent civil disobedience.
1. Have students evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments of each side. This can be done in paragraph form, or by filling the worksheet located on pages 19-20 of the Text Document.
2. Ask students to make a decision: Which route will they take? Obedience to the laws of the land (through the courts and the legislature) or nonviolent resistance (civil disobedience)? Ask for a one- or two-paragraph essay giving reasons for their choice. They should justify their decision in light of their understanding of the issue.
Assessment 2: Evaluate, Reflect, Predict
Instruct students to give a one- or two-paragraph answer to each of the following questions:
1. Give your evaluation of the strongest argument of each viewpoint and justify your choice.

2. Do you think evidence shows that King’s viewpoint carried the day? Why or why not?

3. Predict what might have happened in the struggle for civil rights if Jackson’s “law and order” argument had prevailed, and create a scenario of possible events.

VIII. Extending the Lesson
1. Photographs
The Civil Rights Movement was widely photographed by photojournalists, and these photos, printed in the media, in turn acted as a catalyst to propel the Movement forward and give it more favorable reception in the realm of public opinion. One such group of photographs is the Charles Moore Collection, located at “Powerful Days in Black and White,” at, linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at the University of Virginia site: Students may view additional photographs capturing images of segregated public places at the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photographers site, linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory site:
2. More Information on Birmingham and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Students may learn more about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the site of the 1963 Birmingham protest, by visiting the following EDSITEment-reviewed National Park Service sites:

Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site, Georgia:

West Park (Kelly Ingram Park), Birmingham, Alabama:

IX. EDSITEment-reviewed Web Resources Used in this Lesson
American Memory, Library of Congress:

Images on Popular Topics:

Photographs of Signs Enforcing Racial Discrimination-Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information:
American Studies at the University of Virginia:

Institute for Public History-Civil Rights Resources:

Charles Moore Photographs:

Birmingham’s Racial Segregation Ordinances:
Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project:

Popular Requests (March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom):

Letter from Birmingham Jail:

National Archives:

Teaching With Documents: Lesson Plans:

Documents Related to Brown v. Board of Education:

Online Exhibits:

Treasures of Congress:

Congress and the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

Congress and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (description):
National Park Service: Links to the Past:

We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement:

Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site, Georgia:

West Park (Kelly Ingram Park), Birmingham, Alabama:
Teaching American History:

Joseph H. Jackson, Annual Address to the National Baptist Convention (September 10, 1964):

Martin Luther King Jr., Commitment Card (1963):

Letter to Martin Luther King (April 12, 1963):

X. Additional Information

  • Grade Levels: 9-12

  • Subject Areas

    • U.S. History - African-American

    • U.S. History - Civics and U.S. Government

    • U.S. History - Civil Rights

  • Time Required: Three 45-minute class periods

  • Skills

    • finding and using internet resources

    • interpreting primary source documents

    • working collaboratively

    • comparing and contrasting

    • summarizing and analyzing opposing viewpoints

    • making inferences and drawing conclusions

    • thinking critically

    • predicting outcomes

    • making decisions

    • justifying decisions

    • public speaking

  • Standards Alignment

    • NCSS – 1: Culture

    • NCSS – 2: Time, Continuity, and Change

    • NCSS – 4: Individual Development and Identity

    • NCSS – 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

    • NCSS – 6: Power, Authority, and Governance

    • NCSS – 10: Civic Ideals and Practices

  • Author/Lesson Plan Writer

    • Lesson Writer: Lucas Morel, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia

    • Managing Editor: Constance Murray, Grace Christian High School, Staunton, Virginia

  • Teacher/Student Resources

    • Text Document

  • Related EDSITEment Lesson Plans

    • African-American Soldiers After World War I: Had Race Relations Changed?

    • Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Power of Nonviolence:

    • Ordinary People, Ordinary Places: The Civil Rights Movement:

    • Quest for the American Dream in A Raisin in the Sun:

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