Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Diving Deeper into the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.’s Work:

Study Guide: Exploring King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Diving Deeper into the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.’s Work:
The March Against Fear, 1966.


For Participants

In advance of meeting, each participant will read:

Participants will read both 1963 documents to understand the context for King's letter. The Zeitgeist material will help frame the conversation for United Methodist Women today. Participants should plan an hour of reading time in advance of the session.

For Leaders

Prepare yourself to facilitate. In addition to the reading preparation requested of all participants, please take some time to review the guidelines in the "Sisterhood of Grace" document. Conversations about racial justice issues can be hard, especially if we're new to them. You might consider thinking through your facilitation style in advance.

Extend a broad and welcoming invitation. This is a wonderful reflection and study opportunity for members of your local United Methodist Women unit. In addition, it can be a great opportunity to connect and invite others in your church and in your larger community to join the conversation. Be thoughtful and generous in extending the invitation to others who may be interested in learning with you.

Leaders may want to capture big ideas on newsprint or some other material. Feel free to ask some or all of the questions listed; discussions can become robust very quickly. Do not feel pressured to address every question; let the Spirit lead the discussion as the Spirit sees fit.

Outline for a 90-Minute Study Session

Gathering and Welcome (10 minutes) Guidelines (5 minutes) Honoring the Moment (5 minutes) Discussion Questions (60 minutes) Closing and Sending Forth (5 minutes)
  • King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"
  • "Statement by Alabama Clergyman," the letter from white clergy to which King was responding (dated April 12, 1963)
  • "Zeitgeist: The Spirit of the Time"
  • Invite each member to introduce themselves by saying their name and a few words about why they chose to participate.
  • Thank them for participating.
  • Offer a word of prayer to begin.
  • Remind participants of the "Sisterhood of Grace" guidelines. Give space for every member of the group to participate in the conversation and to be heard respectfully.
  • Show hospitality to newcomers by sharing any housekeeping information, such as the location of bathrooms, child care availability, etc.
  • Remind participants that this is a special season. This spring, we are marking the 50th anniversary of King's assassination. It is an important time to reflect carefully on his faithful discipleship, to learn from his wisdom and to grow in our own discipleship. We are engaging in this study so that we can go beyond the soundbites to engage more deeply in context with King's work.
  • Share the video of Clara Ester, vice president of United Methodist Women, reflecting on her memories about the last moments of King's life and what it means for us today.
  • On April 12, 1963, eight white clergy members wrote a letter in which they expressed their sympathy but asked the civil rights protestors, including King, to slow down, to stop their nonviolent protests and to "observe the principles of law and order and common sense." They wrote, "We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely."
    • What experiences with segregation might these white clergyman have had - or not - that shaped their assessment of the demonstrations as "unwise and untimely"?
    • How did King respond? Ask participants to lift up sections of his letter as examples.
  • Rev. Dr. King writes, "Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was 'well-timed,' according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the words 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' almost always meant 'Never.'… I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.' But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: 'Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?'; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading 'white' and 'colored'; when your first name becomes 'nigger' and your middle name becomes 'boy' (however old you are) and your last name becomes 'John,' and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title 'Mrs.'; and when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness'; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of injustice where they experience the blackness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience."
    • Why did King feel called to "legitimate and unavoidable impatience?"
    • What are the injustices he lists?
    • Based on what you know about the context and the time period in American history, are there any other experiences you would add to his list as contributing to his impatience?"
    • What is King trying to teach these white clergy members and others about the urgency of time and discipleship?
  • King writes, "I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension of the South is merely a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, where the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substance-filled positive peace, where all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality."
  • What is difference between "obnoxious negative peace" and "substance-filled positive peace"?
  • What are examples of each kind of peace in Scripture?
  • What are examples of each kind of peace in our world?
  • King writes about time and how differently it can be perceived. "I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth of time. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right."
    • What is the "myth of time" that King describes?
    • How does King's criticism of the "myth of time" challenge both liberal and conservative ideas about progress and time?
    • What does it mean to use time "constructively" and "creatively"? What did/does it mean for us "to be co-workers with God" in 1963 and today?
  • Whatever our politics, most of us today don't think of ourselves as "extremists." This word has a negative meaning for many of us. King, at first, expressed the same disappointment in being called an extremist. "But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist."
    • How do King's words change our perspective of what it means to be an extremist?
    • What, if anything, are we called to be an extremist in our own discipleship journey?
  • King was a minister who was deeply faithful to the church of Jesus Christ. He also expressed deep disappointment with the church as well.
    • What disappointed King in the church's response to the civil rights movement and especially the response of the white clergy?
    • What does King mean when he criticizes the church for having "largely adjusted to the status quo"?
    • What about the church today? In what ways are we serving as a "headlight" and in what ways do we remain a "taillight" in the work of justice?
  • Many of us have heard or participated in numerous conversations reflecting back on the good ol' days when the church was powerful. Often those conversations hearken back to times when pews were fuller and budgets larger. King also describes "a time when the church was very powerful," but he refers to a very different moment in church history.
    • How does King's description of a powerful church contrast with the ideas of a powerful church we hear described in popular culture today?
    • In what ways does his statement resonate with or challenge our experience?
    • What was the source of the power of this early church that was "small in number but big in commitment"?
    • How did the faith of these early Christians change the world?
    • How were the leaders in the civil rights movement like the early Christians?
    • Do we know groups like this today?
    • Are we such a group ourselves? Could we become such a group? How would our discipleship need to develop to make this possible?
  • King's writes about patience at the end of his letter. We often hear patience described as a virtue. He also teaches us how impatience with evil or sin can be a virtue too.
    • Reflect on your own life and the world around you, today. Where is God calling you to have more patience? Where is God calling you to have less patience and find a holy impatience instead?
  • Thank each member for taking time to participate, to listen, to speak and to learn together.
  • Invite each participant to share one new learning, thinking, feeling or action step that they will take away from the day's study.
  • Offer a closing prayer.

Posted or updated: 3/28/2018 12:00:00 AM
Remembering King: Rekindling the Dream. Click to visit resource page.

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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," the letter from white clergy to which King was responding, and "Zeitgeist: The Spirit of the Time" made available to all participants well in advance of your study group. Both letters are available online for free. Depending on your group, you may want to provide print copies in advance, or you may feel comfortable asking people to read the documents online.

Click Here. Memories of Dr. King and reflections on racial justice
by Clara Ester and other United Methodist Women leaders.

More about Clara on; opens in a new window