Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Letter from Birmingham City Jail

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.

Mugshot of Martin Luther King Jr following his 1963 arrest in Birmingham
Birmingham AL police dept (Life time: NA)  – Original publication: ciculated to news media in April 1963  [source: http://photos.nola.com/tpphotos/2013/04/martin_luther_king_mugshot_apr.html ]
 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.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr. | Ned Stuckey-French The first page of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as it appeared in the June, 1963 issue of Liberation. [ source: http://nedstuckeyfrench.com/essays-in-america/letter-from-a-birmingham-jail-by-martin-luther-king-jr-1963/ ]

In bits and pieces Dr. King composed his response and gave it to his lawyers to take back to the movement headquarters, where Reverend Wyatt Walker began compiling and editing those pieces. The men settled on a final version on April 16, 1963. The 21-page, typed, double-spaced essay appears as though it is personal correspondence, addressed to the eight white ministers. The letter opens with a salutation reading “My dear fellow clergymen” and concludes with “Yours for the cause of peace and brotherhood.” He tells the clergymen that he was upset about their criticism, and that he wishes to address their concerns.

Dr. King justifies his presence in Birmingham, in one of his most famous phrases, that he could not sit “idly by in Atlanta” because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. King reminded them of Justice Earl Warren’s own words on the need for desegregation, “justice too long delayed is justice denied”. Further he justifies his uses of nonviolence and direct action, his timing, his willingness to break laws, and his apparent extremism. In addition he strongly criticizes the white moderates and white churches for not doing more to help the movement’s quest for equality. King argued that it was a moral obligation to disobey unjust laws, and that African Americans have waited long enough for there full rights as citizens.

King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is considered the pre-eminent document of the civil rights movement.






No More: The Children of Birmingham 1963 and the Turning Point of the Civil Rights Movement [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCxE6i_SzoQ ]


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