Martin Luther King Jr. on Just and Unjust Laws

Adapted from the longer lesson plan "What if Laws are Unjust?", this activity asks students to analyze Dr. King’s discussion of when laws are unjust from his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

About this Resource

Grade Level
Time Required
0-1 hour
Curricular Resource Type
Lesson Plans & Activities
Curricular Resource Subject Area
Civics and US Government
US History
Curricular Resource Topic
Civic Education and Engagement
Civil Rights
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 has been adapted from the longer lesson plan, "What if Laws are Unjust?"

Activity available in this downloadable PDF.


Goals/ Rationale

Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, called Birmingham, Alabama “the worst big city in race relations in the United States.” In the spring of 1963, the Birmingham Campaign, also known as Project C, attempted to overturn the city’s segregation laws and practices through sit-ins, boycotts, and marches. This activity explores the question: How did Dr. King define an unjust law?


Students will be able to:

  • discuss events surrounding the 1963 Birmingham Campaign.
  • analyze Dr. King’s discussion of when laws are unjust from his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

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 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 (written in the present tense) from the "Project C" chapter of the microsite 1963: The Struggle for Civil Rights.
  2. Ask students to summarize what they learned about Project C from the reading.
  3. Have students read and analyze Martin Luther King Jr. on Just and Unjust Laws– excerpts from a letter written in the Birmingham City Jail.

    a) The introductory essay stated that Martin Luther King Jr. and others were arrested on April 12, 1963 and that he spent more than a week in jail. Make it clear to students that Dr. King deliberately violated a court-ordered injunction against further demonstrations. Submit this question to students: How could Dr. King justify breaking the law? Explain that Dr. King gave his reasons in the long letter written while he was imprisoned. Provide the page of excerpts from his letter.

    b) Have students take turns reading the excerpts aloud and discuss Dr. King’s argument along the following lines:


  • How does Dr. King explain why he urges people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision outlawing segregated public schools and then breaks laws that he disagrees with?
  • Any law that degrades a person is unjust, according to Dr. King. What does “degrade” mean? In what way does he think segregation is degrading to the individual?
  • What is the connection that Dr. King sees between unjust laws and racial discrimination in voting?
  • When he says that a law can be “just on its face but unjust in its application,” what example does he give?
  • What attitude does Dr. King say one should adopt if breaking an unjust law?

    c) Present the term "civil disobedience" along with a dictionary definition. Ask students whether Dr. King’s actions meet the definition.

    d) Ask students if they are aware of any current public law that they believe is unjust, based on Dr. King’s description. Discuss.

Connections to Curriculum (Standards)

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

  • Standard 3: Domestic policies after World War II
  • Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties
    • 4A: The student understands the "Second Reconstruction" and its advancement of civil rights.

National History Standards -Historical Thinking Skills

  • Standard 1: Chronological Thinking
  • Standard 2: Historical Comprehension
  • Standard 3: Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Common Core State Standards

  • ELA College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading, and Speaking and Listening
  • ELA – Reading Informational Texts, Speaking and Listening, Language, and Literacy in History/Social Studies for grades 6-8.

C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • Discipline 1 - Developing questions and planning inquiries;
  • Discipline 2 - Applying disciplinary concepts and tools (History and Civics)
  • Discipline 3 - Evaluating sources and using evidence; and
  • Discipline 4 - Communicating conclusions and taking informed action

National Council of Teachers of English: Standards 1,3,5,6,7,8,9, and 12

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, Speaking and Listening, and Language

National Standards for Civics and Government

  • Grades 5-8 Content Standards: V. What are the Roles of Citizens in American democracy?

Additional Resources

1963: The Struggle for Civil Rights
Bring the pivotal events of the civil rights movement in 1963 to life for your students 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. To foster your students' understanding of this era, lesson plans on each of the seven topics are available in the "For Educators" section of the website..

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.