Home > Uncategorized > Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Juniors turned in  personal response essays today; they were responding to a single quote from the Civil Rights Tour.  I didn’t want to leap straight into Romanticism and the development of the short story, so I took a class period to do something that I had been hoping to see happen on its own for a couple of years.  Now I see how unrealistic that was, and I’m really glad to have given it some focused classroom attention.

I handed out copies of MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and I made sure everyone had a highlighter in hand.  We all highlighted the allusions in the piece as we read it.  “This is good writing” was one of the comments afterwards.  “I’d hate to try to argue with him” was another.  We looked at sources of allusions: the Old Testament, New Testament, ancient history, the Reformation, current events in Africa, etc.  And what reference books were available to Martin Luther King as he wrote this?  None, of course.  We went on to watch Robert Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis on the night of King’s assassination.  In it, he quotes Aeschyllus as his favorite poet.  I held up these two examples of well educated people whose educations (and memories) gave them enormous power in a crucial time.

Some great questions came up, and they are the reason for this post:

  • How did the Birmingham clergy, authors of the letter that elicited MLK’s letter, respond?  Did they write back?
  • How did people respond more broadly at the time?
  • How do the initial version of the letter, written on scraps of paper and then on a legal pad, compare to the revised one published later?

I’d like to have students explore the writing and revision process of a great work, the context of it, and the subsequent impact.  Maybe that could be a research activity in our new 2nd semester writing course.

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