The Struggle for Equality in Writing

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13862

From Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail", the short and powerful statements of these two men were able to further the cause of equality.


History, Verbal Communication, Writing

English / Language Arts
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio: Image - Button Play
Image - Lession Started Image - Button Start

leaders of the Civil Rights March on Washington, DC

In 1963, Civil Rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. assembled in Washington, DC and chose to speak in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

While Dr. King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, hundreds of thousands were facing the memorial.

Lincoln Memorial

  • What links these two giants of American history?


lincoln memorial

Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were both pieces on the long road to equality in America.

Through the power of their words, they were able to inspire many and even expand their following. In a time before instant messages or cell phones, the written word carried immense weight--even more so when these great works of literature are spoken.

We are going to look at Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address", which was hastily written and only a few hundred words long.

Then, we are going to look at a letter, which is only a few pages long, that Dr. King sent while he was in jail in Birmingham for demonstrating peacefully.

While both could have been far longer, brevity was used as a tool to illustrate the nature of their respective struggles.

Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln, 1858

Abraham Lincoln was a member of the Republican Party, which was founded on the principle of not expanding slavery beyond the states that already had it. His party recognized that it was not politically viable to call for the immediate abolition of all slaves, but preventing expansion would be a good start.

However, once Abraham Lincoln was elected, Southern states seceded even before he was inaugurated and became president.

During the first few years of the Civil War, the South won battle after battle. Southern General Robert E. Lee planned on ending the war immediately after winning the Battle of Gettysburg because then he could march on Washington, DC.

However, this battle was finally won by the United States in July and is considered the turning point of the war because the South never recovered afterward.

The Gettysburg Address

gettysburg address

The Civil War was not solely about slavery.

For both the North and South, the war represented many differences between the two regions. However, as the war continued, it became obvious that slavery could no longer exist if the country were eventually reunited.

A few days after this battle in Pennsylvania ended, Lincoln was invited to come and give a speech on the battle site to commemorate this momentous Northern victory.

Keep all of this in mind as you listen to someone read Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" in the following video below. You may also read along with the text provided below.

Image - Video

Image - Video

  • Do you think the speech was powerful?
  • What did it have to do with equality?

Lincoln talks about how the United States was founded on the notion of equality and greater representation. However, as the tensions rose between the North and South, the country was put through a test.

He personifies the nation as a being that will remain alive because of men who sacrificed their own life for it. In a time when few governments were democratic, the United States was seen as a bastion of freedom and Lincoln presented it as such.

This is because, while many people suffered massive inequality in the country, it was better than many other European countries. This address was given at the turning point of the war that placed the United States on the long road to equality.

One hundred years later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to build upon this idea through his own writing.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a reverend and became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He preached nonviolent protest and practiced that in Birmingham, Alabama.

In 1963, Dr. King was arrested for this sort of peaceful protest.

As you watch the video below, pay attention to how Dr. King interwove his experience into the letter.

Image - Video

Because this was a short letter, it could be published in its entirety.

  • After learning what was going on in Alabama and understanding how this road to equality was a long time coming, what do you think about Dr. King's message?

Letter From Birmingham Jail

whites only bench

While the "Gettysburg Address" was not strictly about slavery, it did mark a victory for the North, which was free while the South had slaves. Because Lincoln's short speech was about the virtues of the United States of America, it felt to many like this was the beginning of the end of racism.

However, it wasn't that simple.

As you read the following excerpt from the video, think about the words through the lens of someone living 100 years after the "Gettysburg Address" who is still being hosed down for trying to sit at lunch counters.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

He calls segregation a disease and that justice has too long been delayed. From the moment Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, African-Americans were waiting for full equality and over the course of 100 years, they were still waiting.


The connection between these two speeches is a long road to an equality that has not been fully reached even to this day. Both texts were also easily published around the country because of their brief and direct arguments for why their cause was just.

As you move on to the Got It? section, think about the literary devices used in each of these texts and consider how they adequately addressed their audiences.

Image - Button Next