Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial

Analyze and explain ideas about liberty, equality, and justice in American society using documents such as in Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963) and "I Have A Dream" speech and compare King's ideas to those in such founding-era documents as the Federalist Papers (1788), Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights (1780).

Topics on this page

A. Background for Martin Luther King

B. A Letter From a Birmingham Jail

  • Civil Disobedience as a Political Change Strategy

C. I Have a Dream Speech

D. Federalist Papers

E. Virginia Declaration of Rights

F. Declaration of Independence

G. Massachusetts of Rights

H. Historical Legacy of Documents

external image Grammy_Award_of_Dr._Martin_Luther_King%2C_Jr..jpg
rotating gif.gifFor more resources on the life and times of Martin Luther King, Jr., see United States History II.25 and United States History II.26

Martin Luther King was posthumously awarded a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for his Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam, 1971

timeline2_rus.svg.pngGeneral Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement in America

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 12.30.24 PM.pngTimeline Lesson Plan: Students will create a timeline of major events and people of the Civil Rights Movement and contextualize it on a global scale to highlight how the Civil Rights Movement was a movement that would take all of humanity: something MLK truly believed.

Focus and Document Backgrounds for Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King is the most remembered and most celebrated champion of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement
  • While the movement involved popular participation from millions of people, King was one of its most prominent spokesmen, and today has come to symbolize the effort for African American equal rights in the South.
    • Equal rights for all races had supposedly been established in principle by the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution after the Civil War, but in practice these amendments were not enforced.
  • However, with the end of Reconstruction era and the inception of Jim Crow era laws in the South largely reverted any progress that had been made by the Emancipation Proclamation and defeat of the Confederacy, leaving African Americans in a de facto state of disenfranchisement.
    • The post-World War II era saw a surge in activism that sought to correct these wrongs, with the Revered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the forefront. In 1963, he both spent time jailed for peaceful protest and stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the National Mall for the March for Jobs and Freedom, all in a matter of 4 months.
  • King left a legacy of speech and writing which has come to speak for the entire Civil Rights Movement, and have become powerful political statements for the entire world. The "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and the "I Have a Dream" speech are two of his most famous statements.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

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Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was written in response to his arrest on April 12, 1963, for disobeying an Alabama state court order which prohibited political demonstrations in the city of Birmingham.

In the previous week, King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other political civil rights groups had engaged in extensive public displays of opposition to several Alabama laws which openly discriminated against racial minorities.

In keeping with his philosophy of nonviolence resistance, these displays were never violent, but they nonetheless caught the attention of Alabama's police and government officials.

After the court order, the groups did not stop their protests, and King was arrested along with other civil rights leaders on April 12. King and his fellow protesters were handled very harshly by police in full view of white and black parishioners at Good Friday church services.

Shortly after this, white church leaders from Birmingham coordinated in writing an open letter condemning King's method's and instead essentially wishing for him to take a more private approach to his efforts. King's letter was a response to the letter written by these white clergymen.

primary_sources.PNGFull text of the Statement by Alabama Clergymen document can be found here.

  • Upon hearing this, while still incarcerated, King began formulating his thoughts in the margins of a newspaper he had been left to read in prison, and eventually composed the now famous, historically and internationally renowned open letter counter-statement to that of the white clergymen. King did not have any other paper available on which to write; he sent the newspaper margins to his movement's headquarters, where the Reverend Wyatt Walker pieced it together for official publication.
    • The letter precisely articulated what King and his followers found wrong with the approach outlined by his opponents, famously stating that "justice too long delayed is justice denied", which is actually a maxim whose origins can be traced back to the Magna Carta of 1215.
      • The letter advocates the methods of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience as the most effective means of fighting injustice and oppression. King drew heavily upon Mohandas Gandhi and the example of Jesus in the Gospels for inspiration in this method. The letter would become a key text in establishing the motivations and methods of the Civil Rights Movement, and remains a key text in the philosophy of civil disobedience.
        • He also addressed the clergyman in the arena of religion, stating that Jesus himself was no moderate and considered a radical in his time for his revolutionary teachings, essentially undercutting much of the foundation of their justification for disagreeing with him.

Multimedia.pngCelebrate "Letter from Birmingham Jail" from Teaching Tolerance that includes an 40 minute recording of the speech. Also find a full text version of King's Letter here.

Multimedia.pngLetter from Birmingham Jail Lesson Plan

Civil Disobedience as a Political Change Strategy

To see where different types of Civil Disobedience has been used in America and around the World, visit Nonviolent Conflict.

external image Beautiful_red_apple.jpgEvery Punctuation Mark Matters: A Mini-Lesson on Semicolons uses the Letter from Birmingham Jail to explore how Dr. King uses punctuation to connect with an audience about his political protest.

"I Have a Dream" Speech

Inscription, steps of the Lincoln Memorial where King gave his speech
Inscription, steps of the Lincoln Memorial where King gave his speech

A trained pastor along with his extensive civil rights activism background, King had delivered many sermons and speeches before. The basis for his speech delivered that fateful summer day has no exact genesis point, he had delivered speeches touching on the topics many times before, and in June of that year had even delivered a "dream" speech in Detroit.

The draft of the speech ultimately delivered was not even formalized until about 12 hours prior to it's delivery, late on the evening of Tuesday, August 27, 1963 in New York City, chiefly with the aid of fellow activists Stanley Levison and Clarence Benjamin Jones. It was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, as a part of the March on Washington.

The speech famously opened with "Five Score Years ago", self-referentially noting the language of the very Emancipation Proclamation he referred to. The speech makes many Biblical and religious allusions and references, and explicitly names the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as paramount for re-examination and application for all citizens of the United States.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Delivering the "I Have A Dream" Speech
Martin Luther King, Jr. Delivering the "I Have A Dream" Speech

The speech is considered one of the most important oratorical documents in the history of the United States and the world, a cornerstone of any human rights argument. Its most famous part came when King detailed his view of the future, his "dream", where there would no longer be racial oppression and discrimination:

"I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today."

primary_sources.PNGFind a video of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech" from the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 here. Also a PDF scan of the typed document is available for review here.

Multimedia.png"I Have a Dream" Speech Video Footage of King's entire speech from 1963.

external image Beautiful_red_apple.jpgKing gave his speech as a part of the March on Washington, one of the largest peaceful political protests in American history. This BBC Documentary explains the March and King's involvement

Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers were a series of persuasive articles written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay arguing for ratification of the United States Constitution.
  • The most famous of the papers is Federalist #10, where Madison speaks about the dangers of factions in corrupting the functioning of a weak central government.
    • To combat the potentially dangerous impact of factions, the federal government needs to be strong and committed to justice. King's appeals to a government which seeks to protect all of its citizens, not just its most privileged.
Federalist Papers
Federalist Papers

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay

primary_sources.PNGClick here to read the Federalist Papers

external image Beautiful_red_apple.jpgFederalist #10 Lesson Plan

Federalist Papers Explained Video explaining the Federalist Papers and their importance to American History

Virginia Declaration of Rights

The Virginia Declaration of Rights was written by George Mason.
  • Thomas Jefferson used it for inspiration for the beginning of the Declaration of Independence and became the foundation of the Bill of
George Mason
George Mason

  • It consisted of 16 sections outlining the government and rights of the people. Notably, it includes statements about the rights of citizens to rebel against an unjust government.

The Declaration contains statements that support equality for all and limit the power of government.

Liberty, Equality, and Justice Sections:
Section 1: That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
Section 4. That no man, or set of men, is entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community, but in consideration of public services; which, nor being descendible, neither ought the offices of magistrate, legislator, or judge to be hereditary.
Section 12. That the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.
Section 15. That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.

The statements about the necessity of governments to respect the wishes of the people, and to have a firm adherence to justice fit in very well with King's statements. King and other Civil Rights leaders saw the discriminatory laws of the time as clear violations of the government's commitments to justice and to protecting its own people.

primary_sources.PNGClick here to read the full document

The Declaration of Independence

Written by Thomas Jefferson, this Declaration announced that the 13 colonies no longer considered themselves part of the British Empire. The Declaration listed grievances that the colonists had against King George III. The Declaration states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..." In the Declaration, personal liberties were proposed as standards of the new government. In his "I Have a Dream" speech King references the Declaration directly by saying, "
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'" The opening statements of the Declaration are today some of the most famous and most powerful statements of equality and justice before the law-they certainly inspired King and other civil rights leaders.
primary_sources.PNGClick here to read the full document

Watch: A reading of the Declaration of Independence

masscities.pngMassachusetts Declaration of Rights

James Adams, Sam Adams, and James Bowdoin wrote the MA Declaration of Rights. The Declaration of Rights are part of the Massachusetts Constitution, which also includes articles and sections defining the government. Similar to the other documents, this Declaration stated that there are certain rights and liberties guaranteed to the people. It declared that all men were equal and free to pursue freedom and happiness. This served as a model for the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Article I is particularly relevant as its language is very similar to the much more famous words of the Declaration of Independence: "All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness." Like the past documents, the Massachusetts Constitution makes extensive reference to the protection of individual rights and freedoms, and the necessity that government govern with the wishes of the people in mind. These ideas clearly would have resonated with King and the Civil Rights Movement.
primary_sources.PNGClick here to read the Massachusetts Constitution. The first section is the MA Declaration of Rights.

Historical Legacy of the Documents

The fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King's writing of this document and delivery of this speech, respectively, have brought about a time of reflection and retrospective from various opinions and voices regarding the legacy of his writings, words and actions.

For a generic document comparison worksheet, visit the government archives or the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
external image Red_apple.jpgSome teaching and learning resources for A Letter from Birmingham and I Have a Dream can be found here, here, and here.

external image South_America_%28orthographic_projection%29.svgWhat MLK Did for the Latino Civil Rights Movement

Pictures and Videos from/about Matrin Luther King Jr.'s Life