Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Nonviolent Direct Action (by Timmy Novom)


Reading Standards for Literacy in History Grades 11-12

2. Determine the central ideas or information of a

primary or secondary source; provide an accurate

summary that makes clear the relationships among

the key details and ideas

3. Evaluate various explanations for actions or events

and determine which explanation best accords with

textual evidence, acknowledging where the text

leaves matters uncertain.

4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they

are used in a text, including analyzing how an author

uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the

course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in

Federalist No. 10).

5. Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is

structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs,

and larger portions of the text contribute to the



Students will analyze Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolent direct action by reading his historical document, Letter from Birmingham Jail. Students will focus on the temporal and philosophical aspects of MLK’s use of nonviolent direct action in the context of the civil rights movement.



Students will learn about the civil rights movement, MLK, nonviolent direct action through the presentation of a video, discussions, and debate. The first class will consist of background questioning, video, and lecture on all important introductory information. The second class will be used to go through the Letter in groups while answering questions about the context, content, and rhetoric of the paper. Then students will debate on the demonstrations, timeliness, and nonviolence, where one half of the class represents nonviolent demonstrators and the other side represents white southern politicians.



Understanding why black civil rights activism could not wait any longer and why MLK believed nonviolent direct action was the justified sociopolitical strategy in fighting segregation.



Why can’t demonstrations wait any longer?

Why does MLK feel justified in disobeying the law?

Why did MLK feel nonviolent direct action was the right strategy?

Why did MLK believe political violence was the wrong strategy?

What role does religion play in MLK’s argument towards nonviolence?

How does MLK convey such an elaborate, significant cause through the rhetoric of his letter?



Nonviolent direct action– occurs when a group of people take an action which is intended to reveal an existing problem, highlight an alternative, or demonstrate a possible solution to a social issue. This can include nonviolent and less often violent activities which target persons, groups, or property deemed offensive to the direct action participants.



By the early 1960s black civil rights was considered by certain African-Americans to be too slow and that it was time for this to change. Organizations were created and sociopolitical strategies to enact the changes they demanded were carefully constructed. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in nonviolent direct action as a way to bring about change. After demonstrating on April 12th, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and sent to Birmingham Jail where he composed one of most important documents in the history of civil rights. His Letter from Birmingham Jail addresses the question, is this the time for nonviolent direct action? King challenged his audience, both emotionally and intellectually, to achieve a new understanding of time and to hear the demands of a people in a moment of crisis.

His Letter was prompted by a public appeal opposing the demonstrations in Birmingham on Good Friday, April 12, 1963,which was written and signed by eight white Alabama clergymen. They claimed the demonstrations were “impatient” and “unwise and untimely” and that any demonstrations that can incite violence are not the right path. In his Letter, King develops eight topics in response to the public appeal letter and the nation as a whole. These topics include the validity of his presence in Birmingham; the appropriateness of the demonstrations; the legitimacy of direct action as a means to negotiation; the timeliness of the demonstrations; the legitimacy of nonviolent direct action; the failures of white moderates; the failures of white churches and their leadership; and the inappropriateness of praise for the Birmingham police. The main questions answered beingwhy could black civil rights activism not wait any longer and why was nonviolent direct action used as MLK’s main philosophical strategies?

Why does MLK feel justified in disobeying the law? Well what is the law and how can it be defined? MLK defines laws as either just or unjust. Just laws uplift the human condition and are in line with the word of God, while unjust laws interfere with this. People have a moral responsibility to obey just laws and disobey unjust laws. Segregation is a morally, ethically, politically, socially and economically practiced law that deserved to be disobeyed openly in order to arouse the nation and work towards adjusting the law to justice. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In the letter from the clergymen they label demonstrators as outsiders conflicting with the political process, but anyone in the US can not be considered an outsider coming in, and if it is to be so, this must change, and this is what MLK believed. Action was needed, and nonviolence was the righteous path.

Why did MLK feel nonviolence was the right strategy? Which is more effective, nonviolent direct action or political violence? MLK found himself stuck between gradualist/do-nothingists and political violent extremist. Nonviolence is the way of God and so MLK believed it should be the way of people. Nonviolent direct action consists of four phases, ID injustices, negotiate, self purify, and direct action. The demonstrators of Birmingham identified injustices; Birmingham had the most unsolved bombings of African-American homes of any U.S. city. They negotiated with the economic community of Birmingham who promised to take down segregating signs, but these promises were broken. They self-purified with nonviolent workshops designed to help them demonstrate with out reacting in a violent manner. They then used nonviolent direct action. MLK shows how the nonviolent demonstrations were patient in nature, complex in design, and necessary due to circumstances. The beauty of nonviolent demonstration is that it creates tension (nonviolent, constructive) and a focus on the problem at hand to the point where it can’t be ignored and negotiation must follow.




Martin Luther King on Non-Violence and Civil Disobedience

Stanford University, Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project (2004)King, Martin Luther Jr. “Letter from the Birmingham jail.” In Why We Can’t Wait, ed. Martin Luther King, Jr., 77-100, 1963


This lesson plan will be split into 2 hour long class sessions.

Day 1

Spend 10 or so minutes asking questions about the1960s, black civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., nonviolent direct action, and the Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

Show video Martin Luther King on Non-Violence and Civil Disobedience

Lecture on civil rights movement, MLK, nonviolence, Letter using information in INTRO


1. print out Letter, which I provide the link for students

2. have class prepare notes for debate tomorrow on how and when demonstrators should protest, half the class represents civil rights nonviolent demonstrators, the other represents white southern politicians

Questions for debate:

What should be done about current segregation laws?

Is there a right time for demonstrations? If so, when?

Is it ever justifiable to break the law?

Are nonviolent demonstrators at fault for violence that may arise at demonstrations?

Whose political strategy is better in terms of bringing out social change and why, gradualists, Malcom X, or Martin Luther King, Jr.?


Day 2

1. Who is MLK addressing?

2. Why can’t demonstrations wait any longer?

3. What does the paragraph long sentence do or convey?

4. Why does MLK feel justified in disobeying the law?

5. Why does MLK feel nonviolent direct action was the right strategy?

6. Why does MLK believe political violence was the wrong strategy?

7. What role does religion play in MLK’s argument towards nonviolence?

8. How does MLK convey such an elaborate, significant cause through the rhetoric of his letter?

Discuss with the class what different groups came up with for the questions. Look for these answers:

1. White Clergymen, white southerners, the nation

2. It has been 340 years of tragedy for Black Americans, and only activism now will bring about change. The opposition always says wait longer, but does not know how long waiting for an end to suffering takes.

3. It conveys the daily struggles of Black Americans in segregated America and its syntax creates a timeline for the reading of the sentence which represents how long waiting for the end of suffering can take.

4. There just laws and unjust laws and it is one’s moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws
5. Because nonviolence is the way of God, and direct action is the way to change. Nonviolent direct action creates constructive tension and awareness to the problem at hang without inciting violence directly. The idea is to change the system without destroying each other.

6. Political violence engenders more violence and hatred. It does not construct but destruct, it does not create but destroy.

7. Religion, Christianity in particular provides the groundwork for a nonviolent approach. The concepts of loving your neighbor and turn the other cheek are integral in NDA. Also, MLK’s religious background transforms the Letter into a sermon.

8. MLK uses antithesis, parallelism, symbolism, metaphors, allusions, ethos, pathos, and repetition. The tone and flow of each argument provide an intellectual and emotional experience beyond the simple reading of a letter.


DEBATE: Teacher will read a question and call on students on each side when appropriate.




Corlett, J. Angelo. “Political Integration, Political Separation, and the African-American experience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X on social change.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, Vol. 21, No. 2, African- Americans in the 1990s (1995): 191-207.

Edward Berry, “Doing Time: King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,'” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 8 (2005): 109-31.

King Jr, Martin Luther. “The power of non-violence.” (1957).            document/the-power-of-non-violence.

Mott, Wesley T. “The Rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Letter from Birmingham Jail.”Phylon 36, no. 4 (1975): 411-421.

Stanford University, Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project (2004)

King, Martin Luther Jr. “Letter from the Birmingham jail.” In Why We Can’t Wait, ed. Martin Luther King, Jr., 77-100, 1963

Tiefenbrun, Susan. “Semiotics and Martin Luther King’s” Letter from Birmingham Jail”.” Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature (1992): 255-287.


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