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Martin Luther King, Jr. is jailed; writes 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail'

Martin Luther King, Jr. is jailed; writes 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail'



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On April 3, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his Southern Christian Leadership Conference and their partners in the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights led a campaign of protests, marches and sit-ins against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. By April 12, King was in prison along with many of his fellow activists. While imprisoned, King penned an open letter now known as his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a full-throated defense of the Birmingham protest campaign that is now regarded as one of the greatest texts of the civil rights movement.

On April 12, Good Friday, King and dozens of his fellow protestors were arrested for continuing to demonstrate in the face of an injunction obtained by Commissioner of Public Safety Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor. Connor, who had just lost the mayoral election, remains one of the most notorious pro-segregationists in American history thanks to the brutal methods his forces employed against the Birmingham protestors that summer. The man who had won the election, Albert Boutwell, was also a segregationist, and he was one of many who accused “outsiders”—he clearly meant King—of stirring up trouble in Birmingham. As he sat in a solitary jail cell without even a mattress to sleep on, King began to pen a response to his critics on some scraps of paper.

The resulting letter was addressed to “Fellow Clergymen” who had criticized the protest campaign. King first dispensed with the idea that a preacher from Atlanta was too much of an “outsider” to confront bigotry in Birmingham, saying, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” While stressing the importance of non-violence, he rejected the idea that his movement was acting too fast or too dramatically: “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.” King also advocated for violating unjust laws and urged that believers in organized religion “[break] loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity.” All told, the lengthy letter constituted a defense of nonviolent protest, a call to push the issue of civil rights, and a rallying cry for fence-sitters to join the fight, even if it meant that they, too, might end up in jail.

The worst of Connor’s brutalities came after the letter was written, but the Birmingham campaign succeeded in drawing national attention to the horrors of segregation. The United Auto Workers paid King’s $160,000 bail, and he was released from jail on April 20. Four months later, King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, regarded by many as the high-water mark of his movement. The following year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which guaranteed voting rights to minorities and outlawed segregation and racial discrimination in all places of public accommodation.

READ MORE ABOUT MLK:

10 Things You May Not Know About Martin Luther King, Jr
For Martin Luther King, Jr., Nonviolent Protest Never Meant ‘Wait and See’
The Fight for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day


On This Day: Martin Luther King, Jr. is jailed writes “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

On April 3, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his Southern Christian Leadership Conference and their partners in the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights led a campaign of protests, marches and sit-ins against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. By April 12, King was in prison along with many of his fellow activists. While imprisoned, King penned an open letter now known as his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a full-throated defense of the Birmingham protest campaign that is now regarded as one of the greatest texts of the civil rights movement.

On April 12, Good Friday, King and dozens of his fellow protestors were arrested for continuing to demonstrate in the face of an injunction obtained by Commissioner of Public Safety Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor. Connor, who had just lost the mayoral election, remains one of the most notorious pro-segregationists in American history thanks to the brutal methods his forces employed against the Birmingham protestors that summer. The man who had won the election, Albert Boutwell, was also a segregationist, and he was one of many who accused “outsiders”—he clearly meant King—of stirring up trouble in Birmingham. As he sat in a solitary jail cell without even a mattress to sleep on, King began to pen a response to his critics on some scraps of paper.

The resulting letter was addressed to “Fellow Clergymen” who had criticized the protest campaign. King first dispensed with the idea that a preacher from Atlanta was too much of an “outsider” to confront bigotry in Birmingham, saying, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” While stressing the importance of non-violence, he rejected the idea that his movement was acting too fast or too dramatically: “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.” King also advocated for violating unjust laws and urged that believers in organized religion “[break] loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity.” All told, the lengthy letter constituted a defense of nonviolent protest, a call to push the issue of civil rights, and a rallying cry for fence-sitters to join the fight, even if it meant that they, too, might end up in jail.

The worst of Connor’s brutalities came after the letter was written, but the Birmingham campaign succeeded in drawing national attention to the horrors of segregation. The United Auto Workers paid King’s $160,000 bail, and he was released from jail on April 20. Four months later, King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, regarded by many as the high-water mark of his movement. The following year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which guaranteed voting rights to minorities and outlawed segregation and racial discrimination in all places of public accommodation.


How Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter From Birmingham City Jail’ Inspired the World

“There are two types of laws, just and unjust,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from jail on Easter weekend, 1963. “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” St. Thomas Aquinas would not have disagreed. The image burnished into national memory is the Dr. King of “I Have a Dream,” delivered more than 50 years ago in Washington, D.C. So it’s hard to conjure up the 34-year-old in a narrow cell in Birmingham City Jail, hunkered down alone at sunset, using the margins of newspapers and the backs of legal papers to articulate the philosophical foundation of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Letter From Birmingham City Jail,” now considered a classic of world literature, was crafted as a response to eight local white clergymen who had denounced Dr. King’s nonviolent protest in the Birmingham News, demanding an end to the demonstrations for desegregation of lunch counters, restrooms and stores. Dr. King’s letter had to be smuggled out of the jail in installments by his attorneys, arriving thought by thought at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s makeshift nerve center at the Gaston Motel. An intensely disciplined Christian, Dr. King was able to mold a modern manifesto of nonviolent resistance out of the teachings of Jesus and Gandhi.

Throughout the 1960s the very word “Birmingham” conjured up haunting images of church bombings and the brutality of Eugene “Bull” Connor’s police, snarling dogs and high-powered fire hoses. When King spent his nine days in the Birmingham jail, it was one of the most rigidly segregated cities in the South, although African Americans made up 40 percent of the population. As Harrison Salisbury wrote in The New York Times, “the streets, the water supply, and the sewer system” were the only public facilities shared by both races. Yet by the time Dr. King was murdered in Memphis five years later, his philosophy had triumphed and Jim Crow laws had been smashed. “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” would eventually be translated into more than 40 languages.

Thanks to Dr. King’s letter, “Birmingham” had become a clarion call for action by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, especially in the 1980s, when the international outcry to free Nelson Mandela reached its zenith. Archbishop Desmond Tutu quoted the letter in his sermons, Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley kept the text with him for good luck, and Ghana’s Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah’s children chanted from it as though Dr. King’s text were a holy writ. During the Cold War, Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, Poland’s Solidarity and East Germany’s Pastors’ Movement all had “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” translated and disseminated to the masses via the underground.

Just as Dr. King had been inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience,” written in a Massachusetts jail to protest the Mexican-American War, a new generation of the globally oppressed embraced the letter as a source of courage and inspiration. Segregation and apartheid were supported by clearly unjust laws—because they distorted the soul and damaged the psyche. Dr. King’s remedy: nonviolent direct action, the only spiritually valid way to bring gross injustice to the surface, where it could be seen and dealt with.

In Jerusalem in 1983, Mubarak Awad, an American-educated clinical psychologist, translated the letter for Palestinians to use in their workshops to teach students about nonviolent struggle. When a Chinese student stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, unflinching in his democratic convictions, he was symbolically acting upon the teachings of Dr. King as elucidated in his fearless Birmingham letter.

Argentinian human rights activist Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was inspired in part by King’s letter to create Servicio Paz y Justicia, a Latin American organization that documented the tragedy of the desaparecidos. Today one would be hard-pressed to find an African novelist or poet, including Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, who had not been spurred to denounce authoritarianism by King’s notion that it was morally essential to become a bold protagonist for justice. Even conservative Republican William J. Bennett included “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” in his Book of Virtues.

The universal appeal of Dr. King’s letter lies in the hope it provides the disinherited of the earth, the millions of voiceless poor who populate the planet from the garbage dumps of Calcutta to the AIDS villages of Haiti. His letter describes the “shameful humiliation” and “inexpressible cruelties” of American slavery, and just as Dr. King was forced to reduce his sacred thoughts to the profane words of the newspaper in order to triumph over injustice, African Americans would win their freedom someday because “the sacred heritage of our nations and eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

The National Park Service has designated Sweet Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, where Dr. King lived and is buried, a historic district. Banks, businesses and government offices are closed to honor the civil rights martyr every January. But the living tribute to Dr. King, the one that would have delighted him most, is the impact that his “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” has had on three generations of international freedom fighters.

These pages of poetry and justice now stand as one of the supreme 20th-century instruction manuals of self-help on how Davids can stand up to Goliaths without spilling blood. As an eternal statement that resonates hope in the valleys of despair, “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” is unrivaled, an American document as distinctive as the Declaration of Independence or the Emancipation Proclamation.

This article was written by Douglas Brinkley and originally published in August 2003 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to American History magazine today!


Socrates in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

In 1963 Martin Luther King brought his campaign of non-violent resistance to segregation to Birmingham, Alabama. At the time Birmingham was one of the most segregated cities in the South and had earned the macabre epithet “Bombingham” after years of unsolved attacks on African-American homes and churches. When King was arrested on Good Friday for violating an ordinance that prohibited demonstrations, he took the opportunity to respond to Birmingham’s white clergy, who while claiming to support desegregation had advised against the protests, sit-ins, and boycotts advocated by King. The result is a classic document of the struggle for civil rights, “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail“.

Given his message and audience, King frequently seeks inspiration from Biblical sources, as well as from philosophers and theologians Christian (Aquinas, Augustine, Niehbur) and Jewish (Buber). At three points in the “Letter”, however, he invokes Socrates, both for his activist brand of philosophy and his practice of a just form of civil disobedience.

King deploys his first reference to Socrates in response to the imagined question, “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?”

But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

This image of Socrates is familiar from Plato’s Apology: the gadfly of the polis, who is constantly “arousing and persuading and reproaching” citizens to perceive truth and justice. Athenians, of course, responded to the stings of the gadfly by executing Socrates. But King rejects the illogical notion that an unjust response to an act taints the precipitating act,

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock?

In King’s final reference to Socrates, the philosopher takes his place in a list of historical figures who engaged in civil disobedience,

[Civil disobedience] was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.


Jefferson County to Preserve Downtown Jail Where Martin Luther King Jr. Was Held

Jefferson County Commissioner Lashunda Scales and Sheriff Mark Pettway on the seventh floor of the downtown courthouse where the jail space is located. (Provided Photo)

By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times

An often forgotten jail on the seventh floor of the Jefferson County Courthouse where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. served time for an act of civil disobedience will be preserved and possibly turned into a historical landmark, Jefferson County commissioners said Thursday.

The commission unanimously passed a resolution that preserves the jail area on the seventh floor “in recognition of the contributions to society by Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the place that Jefferson County holds in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.”

History often notes King’s 1963 Birmingham incarceration where he wrote his masterpiece “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” However, not much attention is given to King’s two-day stay in Jefferson County where he spent time after being charged in 1963 with parading without a permit and sentenced to five days. It took until 1967 to exhaust all of his appeals.

Sheriff Mark Pettway said the public needed to know more about King’s stay in the Jefferson County Courthouse jail which played a role in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

In October 1967, King was arrested after getting off a plane at the airport and spent time at jails in Bessemer and downtown Birmingham.

“We have an opportunity to tell the full story about someone who came to Jefferson County to change the lives of all those who lived here,” said Pettway, standing on the seventh floor of the courthouse where the jail is located. “We know about Dr. Martin Luther King being housed in the Bessemer facility of Jefferson County. Also, he was housed here in this building.

“We want to make sure that that hidden treasure that is here in this building … is memorialized to make sure that the full story does not end in Bessemer but continues here in this part of Jefferson County.”

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After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld King’s 1963 conviction, the Civil Rights leader knew that if he entered Alabama again, he could be arrested so he announced in his hometown of Atlanta that he would return to Birmingham and surrender. It would be the last of 29 times he was arrested on misdemeanor charges for his civil rights activism.

David Orange, a former county commission president and assistant sheriff arrested King and four others at the Birmingham airport as they exited the plane. To avoid a crowd gathered at the county courthouse in downtown Birmingham, Orange took King to the county jail in Bessemer.

King and his brother, the Rev. A.D. King, were booked into the jail in Bessemer on Oct. 30, 1967. The next day, Orange took King and his brother to the county jail in downtown Birmingham.

King was first taken to Bessemer because law enforcement officials said they feared that there might be an assassin in the crowd at the Birmingham courthouse and the change was to protect the life of King, who was assassinated about six months later, on April 4, 1968, in Memphis.

Pettway, the first African-American Sheriff elected to represent Jefferson County, said it is very important for his administration to memorialize the work of King and other Civil Rights activists.

“I want to educate citizens about the county’s history. I want the general public to better understand what the movement provided for all of us and not just a few. It was and still is a continuous sacrifice,” he said.

The seventh floor of the downtown courthouse is currently used for storage and is where air handling units for heating and cooling were installed. The sheriff and county leaders want to renew that area as a place where students and tourists can see “hidden treasures” of history — the jail cells, the docket by which King, the Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and the Rev. A.D. King were signed into the jail mug shots of the ministers when they were jailed and a telegram to the civil rights leader from boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

Jefferson County Commissioner Lashunda Scales said it’s important to preserve Jefferson County’s history while embracing the spirit of change that now exists.

“In order for Jefferson County to truly move forward, we must first recognize our past mistakes, take corrective action, and move forward with a sincere desire to embrace people from all walks of life,” said Scales.


Martin Luther King, Jr. is jailed writes 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail' - HISTORY

Today is the day we celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday and the cause he championed, racial equality. Over the years, I&rsquove developed a tradition of posting Letter from Birmingham Jail on the day we celebrate his birthday. I thought it might be worth explaining why I do.

Since many evangelicals were on the wrong side of the race issue decades ago (and on the wrong side of some of the hoses in places like Birmingham), I think it is helpful to read some of the words that came out of that Birmingham jail. The letter was in response to several white religious leaders and an open letter they published, A Call for Unity.

My hope is that it will help evangelicals think more deeply on the issue of race today, asking the Lord to make our blind spots clear and our passion for justice strong.

The Letter from Birmingham Jail or Letter from Birmingham City Jail, also known as The Negro Is Your Brother, is an open letter written on April 16, 1963, by Martin Luther King, Jr., an American civil rights leader. King wrote the letter from the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was confined after being arrested for his part in the Birmingham campaign.

King's letter is a response to a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen on April 12, 1963, titled "A Call For Unity". The clergymen agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not in the streets. King responded that without nonviolent forceful direct actions such as his, true civil rights could never be achieved. As he put it, "This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'" He asserted that not only was civil disobedience justified in the face of unjust laws, but that "one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."

Here are parts of that letter:

I received a letter this morning from a white brother in Texas which said, "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but is it possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry? It has taken Christianity almost 2000 years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." All that is said here grows out of a tragic misconception of time. It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother. In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, "Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with," and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular.

There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But they went on with the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven" and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.

Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's often vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.


Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a Writer

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is well-known as a reverend, a rousing speaker and the leader of the Civil Rights Movement that changed the United States forever. What is often overlooked, however, is the fact that Reverend King was an amazing writer.

While he wrote his own sermons and speeches, the skill behind those works often gets put aside in favor of discussions about King as an orator and his ability to move a crowd. It is Dr. King's way with the written word that is essential to his rhetorical success, and it is this ability that I will explore in what follows.

Probably the best example of Martin Luther King's skill as an author is the document known as "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." It is a wide-ranging piece, and King is in full command of references that run from the Bible to ancient and modern philosophy &mdash he even quotes T.S. Eliot near the close of the letter.

The letter is dated April 16, 1963. King had been in Birmingham to lead a nonviolent protest and was in jail on the charge of having a parade without a permit. Given the stakes involved and the magnitude of what King was fighting for, arresting him on the charge of holding a parade without a permit might seem ridiculous to some today, but King is very careful in outlining the exact problem:

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

Whereas others might be dismissive of such a charge, Dr. King is very specific and clear about his objection to his imprisonment. It is this kind of care in terms of craft that one finds throughout "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" which makes it such a valuable document for the history of the Civil Rights Movement and as a piece of writing on its own merits.

An interesting word animates the early parts of the letter, and that word is "tension." Even more than 50 years removed from the protests, a viewer of the news footage of the standoffs between the police and the protestors can sense the heated air between the groups, and one is tempted to say that that atmosphere is riddled with tension, but Dr. King had an interesting perspective on that word:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

Dr. King has taken a word, tension, and not only diffused its main associations with violence about to erupt, but also elevated a different kind of tension into an intended goal of this human endeavor. By tying "nonviolent tension" in with the Socratic search for truth, King communicates that the journey will be a struggle and sometimes ugly, but it is something that must be done, no matter whom it makes uncomfortable, because real advancement is at stake. Later in the letter, during an excoriation of "white moderates" who agree with his goals but not his methods, King elaborates on where this tension comes from, and what it reveals:

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

Like the best teachers, Dr. King approaches this concept of "nonviolent tension" from multiple perspectives, to be sure that it is understood. Upon reaching the second metaphor of the boil, the reader understands King's premise that this tension will be there anyway &mdash that the protestors are not the real source of the tension. Furthermore, by combining the two illustrations King provides, the reader can see that the tension is too poisonous to leave alone and that the advantage to be gained by exploiting this tension for his cause is too great. In explaining why he does what he does in the way he does it, King convinces the reader that there can be no other course of action.

Beyond his skill at designing an argument, as demonstrated by his use of "nonviolent tension" above, Martin Luther King, Jr. also possessed the ability to construct a memorable sentence. Although this part of the writer's art is often maligned as superficial, King understood that the ability to "turn a phrase" would make his arguments easier to digest and remember. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" contains many memorable phrases, and at least one that has surpassed its source in notoriety: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." People may argue about the content of this sentence, but its power as a statement of purpose is undeniable.

Less famous, but no less memorable, is how King phrases his disappointment in those he thought were his allies: "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

"Letter from A Birmingham Jail" is a statement of purpose and method, but it is also a document rich in literary and philosophical value. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. invokes names like Socrates, St. Augustine, Lincoln and Niebuhr to show that his mission is the next in this storied line of thought and action.

Dr. King's arguments were, of course, made up of the words that he used. Those words evoke connections and resonate with readers decades after they were first written because they have the ring of truth and give the entire document a sense that King's moral victory is inevitable.

Explore this the language of "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" further with our list of vocabulary words drawn from the historic text.

Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.


Letter from Birmingham Jail

The "Letter from Birmingham Jail", also known as the "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" and "The Negro Is Your Brother", is an open letter written on April 16, 1963, by Martin Luther King Jr. It says that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action rather than waiting potentially forever for justice to come through the courts. Responding to being referred to as an "outsider", King writes: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

The letter, written in response to "A Call for Unity" during the 1963 Birmingham campaign, was widely published, and became an important text for the American Civil Rights Movement.


Birmingham jail letter paved way to March on Washington

Update (Jan. 15, 2014): Today, Martin Luther King Jr., would have celebrated his 85th birthday. On the January 15th program, America Tonight honors his legacy by looking back on "Letter From Birmingham Jail," and four people who assisted King in creating what's arguably the most important document of the civil rights movement. Tune in at 9PM ET / 6PM PT.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, America Tonight remembers four people behind the production, editing and publication of "Letter From Birmingham Jail" -- Clarence Jones, Wyatt Tee Walker, Willie Pearl Mackey King and Andrew Young.

In April 1963, Clarence Jones, the legal counsel for Martin Luther King Jr., took scribbled bits of newspaper and toilet paper he had smuggled out of King's Birmingham jail cell and passed them to Wyatt Tee Walker, King’s chief of staff. In turn, Walker handed them to his secretary, Willie Pearl Mackey King, so she could type them up. By the time she was 22, Mackey had seen racial prejudice at its worst. According to historian S. Jonathan Bass' account in "Blessed Are the Peacemakers," she had quit her job as a counter waitress at a popular Emory University lunch spot after a group of white students in blackface took a photograph inside the eatery. She later quit another job in the food-service department of an Atlanta hospital after an elderly black coworker was denied treatment for a heart attack because it went against hospital policy to treat blacks.

Now she was typing up a letter that would challenge the cultural acceptability of racial prejudice -- even if the greater meaning of the task had yet to dawn on her.

"[King] was so anxious to get a response to [the clergymen]," Mackey King says. "If you have a story you really need to get out and the boss needs you to get it out, you work hard to get it out. The importance of the letter didn't mean anything to me. Something needed to be done."

The result? "Letter From Birmingham Jail," the raison d'être of the civil rights movement, celebrated this month on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

"There is a need for us to understand and appreciate what it took to get the letter, to get the words out of jail and make them available to the public," says Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the only speaker from the March on Washington who is still alive. "And for it to be written, typed and sent out -- it is a powerful, powerful message not just to the American religious committee but to the world religious committee and community at large for them to understand that there comes a time when someone like Martin Luther King Jr. is moved by what I call the spirit of history."

The process of turning scraps of jailhouse newspaper and toilet paper into "Letter From Birmingham Jail" remains, in itself, a seminal achievement.

The decision for King and the movement to go to Birmingham in early April 1963 to initiate civil disobedience was no accident. After more than a year trying to desegregate public facilities in Albany, Ga., little had changed in the city's schools and parks. The New York Herald Tribune called the Albany campaign "one of the most stunning defeats of King's career." The movement needed to be repositioned.

But in Birmingham, King was served with an injunction that forbade him from organizing nonviolent protests pushing for desegregation. Bull Connor, the infamous Birmingham commissioner for public safety, contended that the continued protests would "cause incidents of violence and bloodshed" as well as "irreparable injury to persons and property." Leading a nonviolent protest, King was promptly arrested, ending up in jail during what was an uneasy time for the movement.

The uneasy mood in Birmingham took its toll on King's staff. "I didn't think I'd see my wife or children anymore," Walker says. "I didn't see how I could get out of there alive."

With hundreds of teenagers in jail for peacefully protesting segregation, Jones, as King’s legal counsel, had to deal with angry parents who demanded to know when their children would be bailed out. In King, Jones knew he had an ace in the hole who could be a powerful fundraising tool for bail money.

But when Jones went to raise the issue with King in his dark jail cell devoid of a mattress, something else happened. Almost dismissive of what Jones needed at the time, King revealed that there was an even more pressing issue on his mind.

"Martin, do you understand what I just told you?" Jones asked.

King responded, "Yes, but did you see this?"

Pulling out a copy of the April 13 edition of the Birmingham News, an apoplectic King pointed to the full-page ad from eight white clergymen, essentially telling King, the outside agitator who refused to put a halt to the protests, to leave. To them, King's "unwise and untimely" campaign had no place in Birmingham. They went on to praise the calm nature of the city's law enforcement in the ironically -- and tragically -- titled "Call for Unity."

"I have to answer this," King told Jones.

It was then that Jones realized that King had already begun to respond to the clergymen.

"I look around and see every blank space and edge of every old newspaper there had been written on, including paper towels," Jones says.

Making the most of the little sunlight that trickled through the bars of his cell, King wrote furiously from his encyclopedic memory, quoting the Bible, Shakespeare, Voltaire and theologians, on any scrap of paper he could find. The tide of indignation that came from the clarity of his thinking those few days in jail produced what amounted to the black community's declaration of independence.

King needed more paper, and he also needed what he had written to be transcribed. Jones, who visited King twice a day in one of his tailored suits, would smuggle paper in and out using the inside pocket of his jacket. Since the jail personnel saw him every day, they didn't feel the need to pat him down.

How Mackey King found her spot in this important history is all the more curious, given that she was, by her own admission, a terrible typist.

"I'm still not the greatest typist in the world," she says with a quiet laugh. "Working for Walker, you had to get it right, even if it killed you. He was not easy to work with. I was scared to death of the man."

A strategist and mediator in King's inner circle at the time, Andrew Young was still relatively green on the campaign front. Like others in King's inner circle who were working on the letter's production, Young was solely focused on the transcription. To him, nothing else mattered.

"I sat there and watched her do it," Young says. "She would call me over and ask, 'Andy, what is this word?' She'd say, 'Dr. King can talk, but he sure can't write.'" Adds Young, "We were so focused on the translation and getting what he said right that we forgot the importance of the paper."

King's less than stellar handwriting was a real challenge for Mackey King, who was racing against the clock. "It was not clear. It was almost like chicken scratch. My vocabulary was certainly not something that could have helped me figure out what [King] was saying. I typed what I thought I saw. Sometimes that would be right, and other times it wasn't right. His handwriting was terrible. You just couldn't figure it out."

Some of the scribbled notes from King were in such bad shape that several of them were thrown in the trash. At the time, King's staff didn't make it a habit of keeping or archiving his material, so for Mackey King, the act of tossing the illegible, beat-up notes wasn't to be second-guessed.

"I tell you what," Mackey King says, "after looking at them for so long, I had no reservation in throwing them away whatsoever . To me, it would have made no sense to keep [those scraps]. Everybody wants to criticize, but [those scraps] didn't have the same meaning."

In the days and weeks during the letter's construction, Mackey King would work deep into the night to transcribe King's writings. After not sleeping for two days and two nights, physically and mentally spent, she passed out with her head on her typewriter. Walker moved Mackey to a nearby couch, sat at the typewriter and finished typing the letter himself. Later, historians began to wonder whether Walker, whose own fiery, verbose sermons became legend, had any individual influence on the letter's wording.

"I was just doing a job," says Walker, humbly. "I didn't edit so much as I translated it. Dr. King's thoughts were clear."

The mood in Birmingham, along with the increasing anger among parents of the jailed teens, had a couple of members of his inner circle questioning why King spent so much time responding to the clergymen.

"I didn't really pay attention to the letter until almost a week later," says Jones. "When I was reading it quietly somewhere, I said to myself, 'Oh, my God, this is unbelievable.'"

The letter had something of a barbed quality and did not help curb the violence by Birmingham police during the protests. But King and his inner circle were patient.

Then on May 2 of that year, Birmingham's version of D-Day happened, with Birmingham police wielding water hoses and unleashing German shepherds on nonviolent protesters. The disturbing images of black men and women being doused with water and of dogs viciously attacking young protesters soon became iconic images disseminated worldwide. The media coverage surrounding these images brought attention to the letter and helped push the movement toward Washington, D.C. In the summer of 1963, about 250,000 people would join the March on Washington. King was front and center, representing the grander scope of civil rights, and that's how those who helped produce and support "Letter From Birmingham Jail" preferred it.

"Social-change agents function better when they're under the radar," Young says. "Everybody could be under the radar but Dr. King. I think we saw ourselves as supporting his vision and his mission. Nobody needed to know who we were."


'Letter from Birmingham Jail' regarded as jewel of literature, passionate defense of nonviolence, indictment of moderates (photos)

-- In the solace of a Birmingham jail in April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came across an article in the afternoon edition of The Birmingham News that proved energizing.

The story, headlined "White Clergymen Urge Local Negroes to Withdraw from Demonstrations," inspired King to pen what many consider a jewel of American literature -- "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

Fifty years later, King's heartfelt letter is considered the preeminent document of the civil rights movement, appearing in hundreds of anthologies and designated as required reading for many students worldwide. It has been translated into 40 languages.

"King initially intended the Birmingham letter as a response to the eight clergymen, but it became the most cogent and influential defense of nonviolent resistance ever written," said Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

The clergymen were critical of "outsiders" who were leading protests in segregated Birmingham. The clergy called the demonstrations "unwise and untimely."

King and others were arrested on Friday, April 12 for violating a court injunction prohibiting civil rights demonstrations in the city. He was released eight days later and April 16 is the date placed on "Letter From Birmingham Jail."

Several events are scheduled to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the letter. On Tuesday at noon,

will help unveil a new historical marker at the old city jail where her father was jailed and wrote his letter. The jail is at 417 6th Ave. South.

On Tuesday evening, al.com/The Birmingham News and the University of Alabama College of Continuing Studies will host a commemorative event featuring foot soldiers who participated in the movement and a new exhibit of Birmingham News' photography called "1963: I Am Going All the Way."

Historians and scholars say "The Letter" is brilliant on several levels.

King began: "My Dear Fellow Clergymen. While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities 'unwise and untimely.' Seldom do I pause to answer criticisms of my work and ideas."

King's response -- written without the use of notes or other reference materials -- led him to marshal all of his considerable rhetorical skills "to defend his deep commitment to the principles of nonviolent resistance," Carson said.

"Without access to his library, he tapped his memory for convincing rebuttal arguments drawn from biblical and philosophical sources," Carson explained. "Initially, without paper on which to write, he scribbled in the margins of the newspaper in which the criticism had appeared."

King wrote on scraps of writing paper supplied by a black jail trusty and yellow notepads surreptitiously brought into the jail by his attorneys, Carson said.

"Under these difficult circumstances, King drafted the most crucial public statement of his career, benefiting from the fact that he had been preparing for many years to write such a statement," Carson said.

Jonathan Rieder, a professor at Barnard College and Columbia University,

King had been making prior to coming to Birmingham for the campaign of nonviolent resistance to segregation.

"Every five or six sentences of the letter are fragments of things that King had been preaching and orating for years," said Rieder, author of "Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation."

"He composed like a painter, like a sculptor," Rieder said. "His ability to draw fragments together into these always-new compositions and permutations was part of his artistic brilliance. Forget about whatever intellectual and spiritual brilliance went into it. To me, what is extraordinary is that he does it without notes. It's all deep in his soul and his spirit."

Samford University history professor Jonathan Bass calls the letter the single most influential writing of the civil rights era. King gave bits and pieces of the letter to his lawyers to take back to movement headquarters, where the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, King's top assistant, began compiling and editing the material, Bass explained. The final version was dated April 16, 1963.

The 21-page, typed, double-spaced "Letter from Birmingham Jail" appears as though it is personal correspondence addressed to the eight white ministers, Bass said. The document was never sent to them, however, which led some to question whether the letter was intended for the clergymen or as a public relations document.

"King and Walker had discussed writing a jailhouse epistle while in Albany, Ga., in 1962," said Bass, who wrote "Blessed are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the Letter from Birmingham Jail."

"In addition, King had previously preached a sermon entitled 'Paul's Letter to Christians in America.' This was something they wanted to do, but the occasion never presented itself until Birmingham."

The white ministers were the perfect symbolic audience for the letter, Bass said. "After all, the Apostle Paul wrote letters from jail to fellow believers. On the surface, the letter is a public relations document. It served as the symbolic finale to the Birmingham movement when it was published by the media beginning in May 1963."

"Letter from Birmingham Jail" was used by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the summer of 1963 for fundraising prior to the March on Washington, a strategy that shows how "shrewd" some of the movement's leaders were, Bass said.

"It simply gives us another reason to admire the determined work of King and the leaders in the national movement," he said.


Watch the video: Letter from a Birmingham Jail - Martin Luther King Jr. (August 2022).