Martin Luther King Jr. signature on a letter

The Secret Lives of Objects: Letter From a Birmingham Jail

Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 was one of the key turning points for the Civil Rights Movement.

The Birmingham Campaign in April of that year showed the world that the Civil Rights Movement was not just a series of small, disparate local protests across the South, but many groups working toward the same goal of desegregation and racial equality.

That events of that spring took the Civil Rights Movement into the living rooms of all Americans, because Birmingham’s events, protests, and the local police’s response were televised. The rest of the nation could no longer ignore what was happening in the South.

Birmingham Campaign

Martin Luther King Jr. joined with leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to launch the Birmingham Campaign April 3, 1963 with “a series of mass meetings, direct actions, lunch counter sit-ins, marches on City Hall, and a boycott of downtown merchants.” In response, the city obtained a court injunction April 10 prohibiting all “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.”

The Movement’s leaders announced they would defy the injunction, because, as King said, “We cannot in all good conscience obey such an injunction which is an unjust, undemocratic and unconstitutional misuse of the legal process.”

With full knowledge that they were in violation of the court King, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth and other protesters walked the street to Birmingham’s business district. The protesters were met by police, who arrested more than 50 of them.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Birmingham Alabama Jail 1963
Birmingham City Jail in Birmingham, Alabama, following the arrest of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. for his part in the Birmingham campaign, April 1963. King wrote the famous Letter from Birmingham Jail during his incarceration there. (Photo by Frank Rockstroh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

This was King’s 13th arrest during his participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Kept in solitary confinement, and denied access to his attorney or family for a time, King’s stay in jail drew national attention.

While confined, King read a local newspaper that included an open letter from eight religious leaders critical of King and his nonviolent protest tactics. In response, King wrote a letter explaining nonviolent tactics in light of his extensive knowledge of history and theology.

Page by page, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was smuggled out of the jail by friends, typewritten by Willie Pearl Mackey King (no relation), and distributed in a variety of formats. It became a foundational document for the Civil Rights Movement.

Continuing the Campaign

Despite heavy intimidation by police authorities and rank and file officers, the campaign for equality moved forward — most notably the children’s marches on May 2 and 3. As the nation sat down to their televisions those evenings, they saw video footage of children being attacked by high-powered water hoses from fire trucks. This, in addition to images of dog and police attacks on non-violent protesters released by photographers from Life and the Associated Press, brought national attention to the Civil Rights Movement.

These events prompted President John F. Kennedy to address the nation June 11, 1963 in a radio and televised report.

“We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it,
and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say
to the world, and much more importantly, to each other
that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes;
that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes;
that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race
except with respect to Negroes?

“Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise.
The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased
the cries for equality that no city or State or legislative body
can prudently choose to ignore them.”

The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and the actions of the men, women and children of Birmingham, Alabama spoke to the nation in 1963 and continues to have relevance to today.

Learn more about the Civil Rights Movement at Studies Weekly Online, or through our Civil Rights Movement Curriculum.

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