Media Resource

"Fill Up the Jails": Creative Protest and the Virtual Martin Luther King Project

Rendering of audience watching Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the White Rock Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, February 16, 1960 
Photo caption

Rendering of audience watching Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the White Rock Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, February 16, 1960. 

“Let us not fear going to jail. If the officials threaten to arrest us for standing up for our rights, we must answer by saying that we are willing and prepared to fill up the jails of the South.”  

—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  

With funding from NEH, the Virtual Martin Luther King Project, or vMLK, offers an innovative resource for teaching one of King’s important but unrecorded speeches. Delivered on February 16, 1960 in Durham, North Carolina—just over two weeks into the now historic Woolworth lunch counter sit-in a few hours away in Greensboro—Dr. King’s speech, “A Creative Protest,” came to be known as “Fill Up the Jails” because, for the first time, he encouraged activists to disrupt and break the law through nonviolent confrontation, even if it meant “filling up the jails.” King promised the full support of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the speech served to catalyze the movement. Dr. King referred to this speech several times, stating in an interview in 1963 that the sit-ins and nonviolent direct action were finally helping the movement to achieve the “fill up the jails” goal, which was putting pressure on communities across the south to end practices of segregation in public spaces and businesses. 

Classroom Connections

A Creative Protest [Fill Up the Jails]” offers students an opportunity to consider tactical shifts within the long civil rights movement. The text also welcomes rhetorical analysis, particularly as a comparison to King’s other well-known speeches, such as “The Drum Major Instinct” or “A Time to Break Silence.” We offer a teacher's guide with vocabulary and tools to support this type of analysis.  

Guiding Questions 

  • How does Dr. King's "A Creative Protest [Fill Up the Jails]" speech help us understand the history of civil rights in the United States? 

  • How does studying civil rights history help us contemplate contemporary issues of racial justice? 

  • How is the experience of hearing a speech different from reading it? 

  • How can the structure of a speech increase the power of its argument? 

The vMLK Website

The vMLK project captured the spirit of the speech through 3D animation, advanced sound technology, and a public reenactment in the sanctuary of the new White Rock Baptist Church. Using the project’s virtual exhibit and educational resources, students can hear the reenactment of this pivotal speech and gain understanding of the shift in strategy during the struggle for civil rights. 

This brief documentary offers an overview of the project. 

The vMLK website offers a collection of resources to aid students in understanding the context of the speech as well as comprehensive lesson plans for both history and language arts. Give students time to explore the different modes for experiencing the reenactment, using the  written transcript for reference and notetaking. You many choose to introduce the written text first, in order to draw out the contrast between merely reading the speech and being able to hear it. Consider these questions to guide listening, facilitate discussion, or prompt written responses:  

  • King praises the efforts of students in the movement but reminds them to “continue the struggle on the highest level of dignity.” What does he mean by this? What might he anticipate if students stray from the “right methods?”  

  • What rhetorical tools does King employ in this speech? Where do you find examples of ethos, pathos, and logos in his persuasion? What language choices do you find particularly evocative? 

  • How does this speech fit into your understanding of the larger civil rights movement? Does this seem similar to other speeches from the period or a departure? 

  • King references the international implications of segregation as “America’s shame.” What events or conditions is he referencing? Are there current issues that highlight the interaction of domestic and foreign policies? 

One resource featured on the vMLK website will help students understand the significance of King’s delivering this speech at White Rock Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina. In 1957, the pastor of the church, Rev. Douglas Moore, led a group that would come to be known as the “Royal Seven” in a sit-in at Durham’s Royal Ice Cream Parlor. Though not the first demonstration of its kind, and not as influential as those three years later in Greensboro, this sit-in was one of the early attempts at nonviolent confrontation. In a short documentary film by the Southern Foodways Alliance, “The Royal Ice Cream Sit-in,” students hear the recollections and perspectives of Rev. Moore, member of the Royal Seven Ms. Virginia Williams, and other leaders from Durham, North Carolina. 

  • Why was this particular site chosen for the sit-in? How important do you think that decision was for the organizers? 

  • Why did this event fail to spark similar demonstrations? 

Students may also be interested in the Royal Ice Cream Sit-in entry on Clio, an NEH-funded virtual tool for exploring local history.  

Extension and Related Activities
  • Following the event at White Rock Baptist Church, the text of King’s speech was circulated as a pamphlet. Invite students to consider why printing this speech was important—What effect did it have on the impact of King’s message? Ask students to create their own pamphlet or digital brochure based on the speech. What details from the speech are most important to convey? What context should they include for those who were not present at the speech? Would they make the same pamphlet for people in North Carolina or a different state? For student activists or an older audience?  

  • King offers a powerful message to students about their political agency. Young people played an essential role in the civil rights movement, just as we see so many young people today engaged in activism. Have students research these current efforts and compose a speech to encourage other young people to take action.  

  • Voices of Democracy, partially funded by NEH, offers an impressive collection of speeches on a number of topics, including the civil rights movement. Compare King’s speech with others from the same period to understand the importance of oratory to civil rights activism. You might begin with this powerful speech from Fannie Lou Hamer. Also consider resources from the NEH-supported Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University.  

  • Although the original White Rock Baptist Church where King delivered this speech was destroyed, we are fortunate to have many physical spaces used by King and other members of the movement. The National Park Service maintains several structures in King’s hometown Atlanta as The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park.   

  • EDSITEment provides a number of lessons and resources for studying the civil rights movement. You may find Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and the Power of Nonviolence and Places and People of the Civil Rights Movement especially relevant.