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Lesson Plans

MLK Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and the Capitol Hill attack

January 17, 2021


Martin Luther King Jr, civil rights leader and Baptist minister, (1929 – 1968, seated, centre-right) gives a press conference regarding an agreement reached on a ‘limited desegregation plan’ outside the A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Alabama, February 1963. Standing behind Luther King is his speechwriter Clarence B. Jones. (Photo by Ernst Haas/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Full Lesson


For a Google doc of this lesson, click here. (Note: You will need to make a copy of the Google doc to edit it.)

In this lesson, students will be asked to examine some overt examples of racism at the Capitol Hill Riot on Jan. 6. They will also be asked to consider some other signs of white supremacy and racism surrounding events leading up to, during and after the riot. Students will analyze Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “The Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” including the section in which he wrote “the Negroes’ great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom…[is] the white moderate.” Finally, students will consider how the Letter might offer some prescriptions for racism in 2021 and beyond.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. said:

I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negroes’ great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s “Counciler” or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Subject: Civics, Government, U.S. History

Grades: 9-12

Estimated time: 50-minutes, plus additional time to read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Objectives: Students will:

  1. Understand the message behind the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
  2. Understand some basic facts about the attempted Capitol Hill Riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
  3. Understand the different ways that racism and belief in white supremacy are manifested.
  4. Make connections between Dr. King’s message in the 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and today.


This lesson is designed to be implemented whether or not students have covered the Civil Rights Movement. 

  1. Distribute or share “Student handout: Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and the Capitol Hill riot.” (Note: Instruct students to make a copy of the Google doc to edit it.)
  2. Provide students with an overview of Dr. King’s contributions to civil rights by showing PBS NewsHour’s 50 years on, Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy lives out loud (5:55 mins).
  3. Have students read the Letter From a Birmingham Jail from the Teaching Tolerance website (free student and teacher accounts are easy to create). This can be done as an independent reading assignment.
    • Use the “Text Dependent Questions” provided by Teaching Tolerance to gauge students’ understanding of the text. 
  4. Draw students’ attention to the excerpts from the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that are highlighted on the Student handout.
    • For each paragraph, ask students to highlight the most important ideas, make note of a question that they have, and provide a brief one-sentence summary. Students may do this independently or in pairs.
    • As a whole-group, discuss students’ responses.
  5. Provide students with an overview of some of the ways that racism was manifested at the insurrection on Jan. 6, by showing PBS NewsHour’s Symbols of hate, and their racial implications, at the Capitol Hill riot
  6. Using the Student handout, have students respond to the question, “How was racism overtly manifested during the Capitol Hill Riot?” Students will use the NewsHour segment to answer this question, but they might also provide examples from other sources.
  7. On the Student handout, have students respond to the question, “What are some other, less overt ways that racism was manifested before, during or after the Capitol Hill Riot?” You may wish to have students complete this independently or to have a whole-group discussion. 
  8. Using the Student handout, have students consider Dr. King’s words in the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” to imagine how he would respond to the Capitol Hill riot. Students should be able to use at least three quotes from the letter to draw their conclusions. Explain why you chose these quotes.

Extension: Have students write a letter response to Dr. King’s Birmingham Jail letter explaining the events of January 6, 2021 at the Capitol and what the moment represents for the country.

Kory Loyola teaches high school AP U.S. History and Debate and Public Speaking and coaches Debate in New Jersey. She is a graduate of Rutgers College and has a Masters Degree in Education from the Rutgers University School of Graduate Education and a Masters Degree in History and Culture from Drew University.