Joining the Struggle: Young Activists in Birmingham, 1963

Adapted from the longer lesson plan, "What if Laws are Unjust?", this activity asks students to consider young people’s rationales for participating in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, and the risks and rewards of their inclusion.

About this Resource

Grade Level
Time Required
1-2 hours
Curricular Resource Type
Lesson Plans & Activities
Curricular Resource Subject Area
Civics and US Government
English Language Arts
US History
Curricular Resource Topic
Civil Rights
Persuasive Writing and Speaking
Curricular Standards
Common Core
C3 Framework for Social Studies
National History Standards (UCLA)
National Council of Teachers of English
Massachusetts Framework - English Language Arts
Massachusetts Framework - History and Social Science

This activity is adapted from the longer lesson plan What if Laws are Unjust?


Goals/ Rationale

In Birmingham, Alabama during the spring of 1963, African American children and young adults joined their elders in the Birmingham Campaign. Also, known as Project C, this effort attempted to overturn the city’s harsh segregation laws and practices through sit-ins, boycotts, and marches. The cruel treatment of young people in this non-violent campaign made national and international news, bringing the activists closer to their goals. In this activity, students consider young people’s rationales for participating in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, and the risks and rewards of their inclusion.


Students will be able to:

  • discuss events surrounding the 1963 Birmingham Campaign.
  • evaluate the risks and rewards of young people’s participation in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, AL, 1963.
  • role play a student demonstrator from Birmingham writing a persuasive letter to their school principal with their rationale for participating in non-violent direct action during this time.


Prior Knowledge and Skills

Students should have a working knowledge of the civil rights movement.

Historical Background and Context

In the spring of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth launched a campaign of mass protests in Birmingham, Alabama, which Dr. King called the most segregated city in America. Initially, the demonstrations had little impact. Then, on Good Friday, Dr. King was arrested and spent a week behind bars, where he wrote one of his most famous meditations on racial injustice and civil disobedience, "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Meanwhile, James Bevel, one of Dr. King's young lieutenants, summoned black youths to march in the streets at the beginning of May. Birmingham City Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor used police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses to put down the demonstrations. Nearly a thousand young people were arrested. The violence was broadcast on television to the nation and the world.



  1. For background information about the Birmingham Campaign, have students read the introductory essay from the Project C chapter of the microsite 1963: The Struggle for Civil Rights. Note that this essay, like the other chapter introductions in the microsite, is written in the present tense in keeping with the microsite’s you-are-there approach.
  2. Have students watch the 10-minute PBS video Birmingham and the Children’s March.

Ask students to write a brief response to these questions about the video:

  • Why was the inclusion of young people in the Birmingham Campaign controversial?
  • What were some of the reasons provided by the interviewees for their joining the Children’s March?
  • What instructions did the young people receive as part of their training?
  • What happened to the children who participated in the March?
  • How did the Children’s March help the civil rights movement?

Have students share their responses with the class.

  1. Distribute the Justice Department telephone log from May 17, 1963. Explain that staff members of the Justice Department remained on duty after hours to receive incoming calls about civil rights demonstrations and incidents around the country. Have students take turns reading the first entry, with notes on the call from Joe Dolan. Explain that Joseph F. Dolan served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General and was a key figure on Robert Kennedy’s staff at the Justice Department. Dolan was sent to Birmingham along with Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall, head of the Civil Rights Division, to help mediate the racial conflict there as well as to provide first-hand reports on the situation.
  2. Discuss these questions with the class:
  • How serious a penalty were student-demonstrators facing in terms of the Birmingham School Board’s proposed disciplinary actions?
  • What was Mr. Dolan’s opinion about the plan? What meaning do you take from his opinion?
  1. Provide students with the following instructions: Imagine that you are one of the students who is facing disciplinary action because you skipped classes to take part in the demonstrations. Assume that Joe Dolan’s opinion is correct, and that the Birmingham School Board is giving individual principals discretion on whether to expel, suspend or impose a less harsh penalty on student-demonstrators. The principal of your school, Mrs. Jones, has asked you to come to her office. She tells you that she’ll base her decision in your case on the following assignment:

You are to write a letter to her to convince her that your actions were based on principle and an understanding of the issues involved—and not just on wanting to join the crowd. The letter should include a paragraph on each of the following:

  • description of a local law or ordinance you believe to be unjust, and why;
  • how the ordinance has affected you, your family and/or other people in the community;
  • explanation of how you and others who marched, participated in sit-ins, sang and shouted, carried signs, etc. were exercising rights guaranteed under the Constitution;
  • why your actions do not imply a disrespect for the law;
  • what you learned from this experience—about yourself and about the rights and responsibilities of citizens in a democracy.

Note that even though students at the time probably wouldn’t have read Dr. King's “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” they may well have heard him speak about the same ideas during nonviolence training sessions at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Therefore, they may choose to cite passages from his letter in making their case to the principal.


Use the letter-writing assignment to assess how well students have met the learning objectives.

Connections to Curriculum (Standards)

National History Standards -US History, Era 9: Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)

  • Standard 4:The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties

Common Core State Standards

  • ELA College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language
  • ELA – Reading Informational Texts, Writing, Speaking and Listening, Language, and Literacy in History/Social Studies for grades 7, 8, and 9-10

C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • Discipline 2 - Applying disciplinary concepts and tools (History and Civics)
  • Discipline 4 - Communicating conclusions and taking informed action

National Council of Teachers of English: Standards 1, 3, 4, 5

Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework

  • 8.T4 – Rights and responsibilities of citizens
  • USII.T4 - Defending democracy: the Cold War and civil rights at home

Massachusetts English Language Arts Framework

  • Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language

Additional Resources

1963: The Struggle for Civil Rights
This interactive time line brings to life the pivotal events of the civil rights movement in 1963 through more than 230 primary sources ranging from film footage of the March on Washington and letters from youth advising the president to JFK’s landmark address to the American people and secret recordings of behind-the-scenes negotiations on civil rights legislation.

Martin Luther King Jr. Resources
Geared to high school grades, this PDF provides links to photos, letters, telegrams, audio clips, oral histories, a lesson plan, and other material on the Library’s website.