What if Laws are Unjust?

Students read and analyze segregation ordinances, and learn how Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists challenged these unjust laws through peaceful protest and civil disobedience during the 1963 civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. The lesson highlights the vital role that young people played in the campaign.

About this Resource

Grade Level
Time Required
3-4 hours
Curricular Resource Type
Lesson Plans & Activities
Curricular Resource Subject Area
Civics and US Government
English Language Arts
US History
Curricular Resource Topic
Civic Education and Engagement
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

Download this Lesson Plan, including handouts as a pdf.


In this lesson, students read and analyze segregation ordinances, and learn how Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists challenged these unjust laws through peaceful protest and civil disobedience during the 1963 civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. The lesson highlights the vital role that young people played in the campaign.

Essential Question: How have citizens challenged unjust laws through non-violent actions?


Students will be able to:

  • cite examples of segregation ordinances and evaluate why they were discriminatory;
  • describe/summarize the 1963 civil rights campaign in Birmingham;
  • read and analyze primary sources on this event, comparing with a secondary source; identify First Amendment principles underlying civil rights marches and other peaceful protest;
  • define “civil disobedience” and how it was employed by Martin Luther King Jr. and others to challenge segregation laws.

Sources and Historical Background


(All materials are included in the downloadable lesson plan. See below under “Additional Info” for background on source materials.)

  1. “Birmingham’s Segregation Ordinances”
  2. Signs of Segregation”
  3. “Project C” introductory essay to the chapter on Project C, the 1963 civil rights campaign in Birmingham (also included with downloadable lesson plan)
  4. Telegram from Wyatt Tee Walker to the President on the jailing of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, April 13, 1963 [Project C, “Creating Project C” subchapter]
  5. “Martin Luther King Jr. on Just and Unjust Laws” – excerpts from a letter to fellow clergymen written from Birmingham City Jail, April 16, 1963 (included with downloadable lesson plan)
  6. Front-page news photos of the demonstrations in Birmingham, May 4, 1963 edition of The Charleston Gazette [Project C, “Confrontation” subchapter]
  7. Statement by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy on the Birmingham demonstrations, May 3, 1963 [Project C, “Confrontation” subchapter]
  8. Justice Department telephone log with notes on a call from Joe Dolan, May 17, 1963 [Project C, “The Agreement” subchapter]
  9. Written Document Analysis Worksheet


The lesson begins with an introductory discussion in which students consider what “a government of laws” means at the local level and how citizens might respond to laws and regulations they find to be objectionable or unfair. Students then examine and analyze racial segregation ordinances from Birmingham, Alabama along with related photos. After reading a brief narrative of the 1963 civil rights campaign in Birmingham, they read excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and discuss his rationale for civil disobedience to protest unjust segregation laws. They also examine primary sources highlighting young people’s participation in the Birmingham campaign. As a culminating activity, students compose a letter from the standpoint of a young demonstrator who must explain to the school principal why he or she was justified in skipping classes to join the protest march.

1. Introductory discussion: “A government of laws and not of men.”

a) As a prompt, write the above quote on the board. This phrase was included by John Adams in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Part I, Article 30) which he helped to write in 1779 and which served as a model for the US Constitution.


  • What do these words mean to you and how do they relate to the kind of government we have in the United States?

Record students’ responses. They should be able to connect Adams’ words with their knowledge of America’s war for independence and the colonials’ sense of outrage at the unjust, arbitrary rule of the King. They should also be able to draw connections with the concept of checks and balances and separation of powers.

b) Briefly review with students how the legislative power is exercised at federal and state levels before focusing in on the local level, along the following lines:


  • Who makes the laws in [name of your city or town]?
  • Can you name some parts of the community which these local elected officials are responsible for regulating (e.g., schools, traffic, recreational facilities)? Give an example of a law or regulation for each area.
  • Can you think of any local law or regulation that some people might find to be annoying or objectionable? (Should they still obey it?)
  • If a majority of local elected officials happened to be biased against, or in favor of, a particular group within the community and passed laws reflecting that bias—what might concerned citizens do? Which sections of the US Constitution could they cite to challenge the discriminatory laws?

c) To follow up on the last question, have students review the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment (Section 1) of the US Constitution. Ask them to copy down the passages they think are most relevant to challenging unjust laws, and why. Text of both amendments can be found on the National Archives website:

2. Examine/analyze racial segregation ordinances and related photos.

a) Explain to students that local laws are often known as “ordinances”—and that communities throughout the South and many areas of the North had ordinances years ago which were designed to enforce racial segregation.


  • What does the word “segregation” mean?

Record students’ responses. Then distribute the handout on “Birmingham’s Segregation Ordinances.”

b) After locating Birmingham on a map, have students take turns reading the five ordinances aloud. Ask them to summarize each one in the form of a rule, using ten words or less. The heading of Chapter 23, Sec. 597—“Negroes and white persons not to play together”—can be used as an example. List the rules on a large sheet of paper.

c) Hand out the “Signs of Segregation” sheet. Explain that these photos were not taken in Alabama but in other states which had similar local laws during the same time period. Ask students if they can match any of the photos with one of the ordinances.

Note: The separate movie theater entrance for “Colored” matches with the third ordinance, as do the “Colored” and “White” bus station waiting rooms. The “White Ladies Only” restroom illustrates the fourth ordinance. (Sharp-eyed students may also notice the “White Men Only” restroom sign below the stairs outside the movie theater.) The outdoor drinking fountain with sign saying “Colored” doesn’t match with any ordinance in the handout. For this one, ask students to make up a rule that would apply, as above, and add it to the list.

d) With the list of rules about segregation in view, hand out a sheet with the following questions. Give students time to respond in writing.


  • Who do you think created these ordinances, and why?
  • Today, most people recognize such laws as being extremely discriminatory. In what ways are they unfair?
  • Which of the ordinances do you think had the greatest impact on people’s lives—and why?
  • How might African Americans have challenged the segregation laws?

Students’ responses to the last question will obviously vary depending upon how much or how little they have read about the Jim Crow era, and about what consequences there could be for African Americans who violated either written or unwritten rules of conduct.

e) Ask the class if they have any additional insights about the meaning of segregation. (Add to the definitions recorded earlier.)

Optional activity:

Draw students’ attention back to the last paragraph on page 2 of the segregation ordinances, which deals with buses and other public transport. Ask if anyone can say how Rosa Parks reacted when she was told to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 to make room for a white passenger, and what happened afterward. By grade 7, many students will have some familiarity with this historical episode and with the Montgomery Bus Boycott sparked by Mrs. Parks’ arrest. A “Teaching With Documents” web page with the arrest record of Rosa Parks can be accessed from the National Archives website. The web page features a diagram of the bus showing where Mrs. Parks was seated and a brief narrative of event, including the young Martin Luther King Jr.’s emergence as a civil rights leader during the bus boycott.

3. Read/summarize a narrative of the 1963 civil rights campaign in Birmingham (“Project C”).

a) To learn how people challenged segregation in Birmingham give students the reading on “Project C” as a homework assignment. Note that this essay, like the other chapter introductions in 1963: The Struggle for Civil Rights, is written in the present tense in keeping with the microsite’s you-are-there approach.

b) As a lead-in to the following activity, ask students to summarize what they learned about Project C from the reading.

4. Read and analyze “Martin Luther King Jr. on Just and Unjust Laws” – excerpts from a letter written in the Birmingham City Jail.

a) The 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 King deliberately violated a court-ordered injunction against further demonstrations. Write this question on the board: How could Dr. King justify breaking the law? Explain that King gave his reasons in the long letter written while he was imprisoned. Hand out the page of excerpts from his letter.

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


  • How does 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 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 King say one should adopt if breaking an unjust law?

c) Note that King does not use the term “civil disobedience.” Write these words on the board along with a dictionary definition. Ask students whether Dr. King’s actions meet the definition.

5. Examine/analyze photos of youth in the midst of the Birmingham demonstrations.

a) The Project C narrative told of young people joining the demonstrations after getting trained in nonviolence—and then being treated very roughly by the authorities. Hand out copies of the news photos showing this rough treatment and then divide the class into small groups.

b) With one person in each group serving as secretary, students are to record at least three observations and three questions about the two photos showing young people during the demonstrations (images at left and center). Come back together as a class and share responses to the pictures.

c) Ask students to write a brief response (1-2 paragraphs) to these questions:


  • What new information did these photos provide about Project C beyond what you read in the narrative?
  • What new questions did they raise for you about this event?

Optional follow-up questions:

Provide more information about the photo at left of the police dog lunging at the young man. (See below under “Background on Primary Sources.”) Ask students if this information changes their impressions and whether it raises any new questions about the photo.

Specific questions about the individual photos:

  • Photo at left: Do you think you would have reacted to the police dog any differently from this young man had you been in his shoes? (How so?)
  • Photo in center: How might you have reacted if you’d been on the receiving end when the high-pressure hoses were turned on? What sort of thoughts could be going through your mind? What emotions could you be feeling?
  • Photo at right: The leaders of Project C were committed to peaceful protests and led workshops in nonviolence prior to the demonstrations. Do you think the man shown in the picture at right had this kind of training? (Compare his reaction to the patrolman and police dog with the reactions of youth in the other two photos.)

This last question also provides an opening to give students more information about nonviolence, including Gandhi’s use of nonviolent protest during India’s quest for independence, which had inspired Dr. King and other civil rights activists. Descriptions of role-play exercises used to help prepare demonstrators not to react violently if attacked can be found in many books on the Civil Rights Movement, e.g., We’ve Got a Job by Cynthia Levinson (see bibliography below).

6. Write a persuasive letter from the standpoint of a student-demonstrator.

a) 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 first who he was and what he was doing in Birmingham -- see below under Additional Info/Background on Primary Sources.) Discuss the following.


  • How serious a penalty were student-demonstrators facing in terms of the School Board’s proposed disciplinary actions?
  • What was Mr. Dolan’s opinion about the plan?

b) Give students a chance to scan the notes on calls from Bill Hines of the FBI.


  • Based on the reports from Mr. Hines, what impact do the demonstrations in Birmingham seem to be having on civil rights-related actions in other states?

c) As a concluding activity for the lesson, give the class this exercise in persuasive writing:

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 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 MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” they may well have heard Dr. King 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.

Additional documents

As an optional activity, give students these two additional primary sources to examine along with copies of the Written Document Analysis Worksheet. Students may work on these individually or in small groups and then share their observations. Specific questions about each document can be addressed in class discussion.

Telegram from Wyatt Tee Walker to the President on the jailing of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, April 13, 1963


  • What conditions were King and Abernathy subjected to in the jail?
  • To which specific constitutional guarantees is Walker referring?

Statement by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy on the Birmingham demonstrations, May 3, 1963


  • What was Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s attitude regarding the demonstrations?
  • How do RFK’s views compare with those expressed by Martin Luther King Jr. in his letter written from the jail in Birmingham?

Note: RFK discussed civil rights and respect for the law in his first speech as Attorney General. It was delivered to a southern audience at the University of Georgia in May, 1961, a few months after the university had gone through a difficult desegregation process. The speech can be found on the Library's website here.


1. There are a number of well-written, well-illustrated nonfiction books for middle grades and older that tell the story of this event. The bibliography (see below) lists ten titles, all of which give special attention to the involvement of teenagers and younger children in the demonstrations. Have students choose one of the books to read on their own. Alternatively, present one of the accounts to your class as a read-aloud. A Dream of Freedom by Diane McWhorter features a ten-page chapter on Birmingham; All the People by Joy Hakim includes a four-page narrative. Following the reading, ask students to compare/contrast it with the essay on Project C.

2. A sampling of pro and con letters regarding the Birmingham demonstrations may be found at in the Project C Public Opinion sub-chapter. Students might find a useful quote or other information in the correspondence to bolster the argument in their letter to the principal. For the purpose of the exercise, students can assume that these were “open” letters to the president (i.e., they could have also been published in a newspaper at the time).

3. The following assignment can be given to students as a follow-up to reading the excerpts from Dr. King’s letter:

It was stressful, scary and physically uncomfortable for Martin Luther King Jr. to spend a week in that jail cell in Birmingham. However, he demonstrated that one’s mind can roam free even if one’s body is confined. Research the life of another person who had been “a prisoner of conscience” (i.e., someone jailed or confined for disobeying unjust laws). Write a brief profile and select an inspiring quote from this individual to share with the class.

4. Students can research and report on historical or contemporary examples of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience in the US and around the world—or, more specifically, of young people who have taken a stand against injustice. Malala Yousafzai is an outstanding recent example, and students may find her July 12, 2013 speech at the United Nations to be especially inspiring.

Connections to Curricula (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

National Standards for Civics and Government

Grades 5-8 Content Standards

Standard III-E.2: Students should be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a rule or law, by determining if it is fair, i.e., not biased against or for any individual or group.

Standard V-B.2: Students should be able to identify political rights, e.g., the right to vote, petition, assembly, freedom of press.

  • courage—the strength to stand up for one’s convictions when conscience demands;
  • respect for law—willingness to abide by laws, even though one may not be in complete agreement with every law [and] willingness to work through peaceful, legal means to change laws which are thought to be unwise or unjust.

Standard V-E.3: Students should be able to:

  • explain how Americans can use the following means to monitor and influence politics and government at local, state, and national levels [including] taking part in peaceful demonstrations;
  • describe historical and current examples of citizen movements seeking to promote individual rights and the common good, e.g., civil rights movements; explain what civil disobedience is, how it differs from other forms of protest, what its consequences might be, and circumstances under which it might be justified.

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 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

Massachusetts English Language Arts Framework

  • Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language

Additional Information

Background on Primary Sources

Birmingham’s Segregation Ordinances
This set of excerpts from The General Code of the City of Birmingham, Alabama (published by The Michie Company, 1944) was adapted from a primary source feature found on the website of Cynthia Levinson, author of We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March. Excerpts from the same original source have also been published on the PBS Teachers’ Domain website, among others.

“Signs of Segregation”
The images are from an unrestricted collection of photographs at the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/085_disc.html. The source was the Farm Security Administration—Office of War Information. The photos date from the 1930s and 1940s.

Telegram from Wyatt Tee Walker to the President on the jailing of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, April 13, 1963
Wyatt Tee Walker was the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference while Martin Luther King Jr. served as president and Ralph Abernathy as vice president of the organization. The day before this telegram was sent, King, Abernathy and dozens of other activists had been arrested after they marched through the streets of Birmingham, defying an Alabama state court injunction that forbid them “from engaging in, sponsoring, promoting or encouraging mass street parades, marches, picketing, sit-ins, and other actions likely to cause a breach of the peace.”

“Martin Luther King Jr. on Just and Unjust Laws” – excerpts from a letter to fellow clergymen written from Birmingham City Jail, April 16, 1963
The original letter can be found here. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote this after reading a statement by eight white clergymen that appeared in a Birmingham newspaper the morning after his arrest. Urging that the demonstrations cease, they concluded that: “When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.” As part of his lengthy response, which he began writing in the margins of the newspaper and on other scraps of paper, King analyzed the difference between just and unjust laws. He spelled out the reasons why disobeying an unjust law was not only right but necessary.

Front-page news photos of the demonstrations in Birmingham, May 4, 1963 edition of The Charleston Gazette
The picture at left is one of the most famous images of the civil rights era. It was taken by Associated Press photographer Bill Hudson and shows high school student Walter Gadsden, seemingly calm and unflinching, as a police dog lunges at his midsection while Officer Dick Middleton grips his sweater. Although the newspaper identifies the teenager as “a young marcher,” he was actually a bystander watching some classmates who were participating. The picture was flashed around the world and it had a major impact. Diane McWhorter’s book, A Dream of Freedom (see the bibliography) has an interesting sidebar on the photograph.

Statement by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy on the Birmingham demonstrations, May 3, 1963
As head of the Justice Department, Robert Kennedy was the primary law enforcement official in the federal government, and this statement would certainly have reflected the views of his brother, the president. Both JFK and RFK wanted to avoid sending federal troops into Alabama, and they believed that real and lasting changes could only be accomplished through negotiations among black and white leaders within the local community.

Justice Department telephone log with notes on a call from Joe Dolan, May 17, 1963
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.

Bibliography for students

Bolden, Tonya. M.L.K. – Journey of a King. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2007.
Part III, “I’ve Got to March,” includes details of Martin Luther King Jr.’s involvement with the Birmingham campaign.

Brimner, Larry Dane. Black & White: The Confrontation between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor. Calkins Creek, 2011.;

Brimner, Larry Dane. Birmingham Sunday. Boyds Mills Press, 2010.

Hakim, Joy. A History of US/Book 10: All the People. Oxford University Press, 1995.

See chapter 19: “Some Brave Children Meet a Roaring Bull.”

Levine, Ellen. Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories. Puffin Books, 1993. See chapter 5: “The Children’s Crusade.”

Levinson, Cynthia. We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March. Peachtree Publishers, 2012.

Mayer, Robert H. When the Children Marched: The Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. Enslow Publishers, 2008.

McWhorter, Diane. A Dream of Freedom: The Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968. Scholastic, 2004. See chapter on Birmingham.

Rochelle, Belinda. Witnesses to Freedom: Young People Who Fought for Civil Rights. Lodestar Books, 1993. See chapter 7: The Children’s Crusade.

Tougas, Shelley. Birmingham 1963: How a Photograph Rallied Civil Rights Support. Compass Point Books, 2011.