Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. lead the march to Birmingham, Alabama’s city hall, which led to his arrest, on April 12, 1963. (AP Photo/Horace Cort) [ source: https://qz.com/328913/martin-luther-king-jr-s-1963-letter-from-birmingham-jail-remains-relevant-today/ ]
In 1963, Birmingham became the focus of civil rights movement, as the activists launched one of the most influential campaigns of the movement. The Campaign was initiated by Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and its affiliate, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). They chose Birmingham as the focus of their campaign because the city was notorious for its violence against blacks. As it was one of the most segregated cities in America, the campaigners wanted to bring national attention to the brutal, racist treatment suffered by blacks. The campaign consisted of a series of non-violent protests such as mass meetings, lunch counter sit-ins, a march on city hall, and boycotting of downtown stores. The campaign was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reverends James Bevel and Fred Shuttlesworth, among others. The protest was codenamed as “Project C”, and C stood for confrontation. The organizers thought that if enough people protested, which would likely to provoke heavy-handed reactions from police, with mass arrests, that would likely attract national attention, and help in gaining them support from the federal government and the rest of the country.
On April 3, 1963 the desegregation campaign began quietly, with sit-ins at several downtown “whites-only” lunch counters, boycott of downtown stores, marches through the streets on a daily basis. On Good Friday, 12 April, Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy lead a peaceful march in an attempt to put pressure on the white business community to hold meaningful negotiations, and was arrested for violating the anti-protest injunction and was placed in solitary confinement.
Dr. King was kept in the Birmingham City Jail for 8 days following his arrest. During his time in jail that he wrote his famous “letter From Birmingham City Jail”, in response to an open letter written by eight white local clergymen stating their dismay with Dr. King and the SCLC’s tactics, saying the protests as “unwise and untimely” and they urged the black community to withdraw support from these demonstrations. Since Dr. King was originally from Atlanta, they accused him as an “outsider”, using “extreme measures” that incite “hatred and violence”. They also believed that, rather than staging protests and demonstrations on the streets, the cause should be properly pursued only in the courts, and that King should rely on local negotiation as a means to ending racial discrimination. Finally, the clergyman stated that time would bring about justice, and that King and his followers should be patient and not rush progress. King, disappointed with his fellow clergymen, penned a point for point response in the margins of newspapers and organized his thoughts from his small cell. In the letter, he addresses the major concerns of the clergymen, while also staking out his reasoning for acting the way he did.