Birmingham police arrested Martin Luther King Jr. on 12 April 1963,
and he penned his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" while
imprisoned, slipping it as a crumpled wad of paper to his friend
Clarence Jones. Jones did not know what it was until later.
First, CNN has a report on how the Civil Rights leader passed the letter from his jail cell to his adviser and assistant speech writer, Clarence Benjamin Jones. Until I saw the article, I had not envisioned its delivery quite this way:
[King] was unshaven, dirty and dejected. King had spent several days alone in solitary confinement with no mattress in a filthy dark jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama.Yes, that "mish-mash of words and arrows scribbled on bits of paper" turned out to be the famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." In it, King responds to the eight white church leaders, supposed moderate allies of his era, who opposed his public protest demonstrations against segregation. These clergymen regarded him as an interloper who should go home and stop rocking the boat. They were content to let the status quo of segregation go unchallenged indefinitely.
"Take this out of here," King whispered as he grabbed Jones' belt and stuffed balled-up newspapers and toilet tissue down his pants.
Jones, King's lawyer, wondered if King was starting to lose it. He didn't pay attention to what King had given him -- it was just a mish-mash of words and arrows scribbled on bits of paper.
"Not until five days later did I actually read a mimeographed copy of the letter," says Jones. "To be honest with you, I was more worried about bail money, not what he had written."
Once Jones realized what King had given him, he released the letter.
Following the initial circulation of King’s letter in Birmingham as a mimeographed copy, it was published in a variety of formats: as a pamphlet distributed by the American Friends Service Committee and as an article in periodicals such as Christian Century, Christianity and Crisis, the New York Post, and Ebony magazine. The first half of the letter was introduced into testimony before Congress by Representative William Fitts Ryan (D-NY) and published in the Congressional Record. One year later, King revised the letter and presented it as a chapter in his 1964 memoir of the Birmingham Campaign, Why We Can’t Wait, a book modeled after the basic themes set out in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”See more about the history of the letter in an article at Stanford University's website.
In the Times Picayune's video published today, white New Orleans pastors discuss the relevancy of Dr. King's letter to the Christian church and society in 2013.
Columnist Jarvis DeBerry at the Times Picayune asks the pastors, "Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?"
Rev. David Crosby of First Baptist in New Orleans answers that the church is always in danger of being captured by the "culture" and "the powers that be."
Shawn Anglim, pastor of First Grace United Methodist Church, says if the canon of Christian scripture were still open today, King's letter could be included, that King's words approach the weight of the Apostle's Paul's New Testament epistles on many levels. Later in the video, Anglim associates the struggle for African-Americans to attain equality in the 1960s with LGBQT citizens now seeking equality. He says that at his church he is speaking to his congregation and telling him that to be "gay is okay."
Other pastors identify other injustices that they think the Christian church has not adequately addressed, such as children in poverty and Louisiana's excessively high incarceration rates. You may watch the video to hear more of the discussion, and DeBerry's article has links to various pastors' written thoughts on King's letter. You will also see in the comments on his article that some white Southerners (I conclude) still want to argue that King was insignificant or that we should stop talking about race or of race in American history in any way that acknowledges black suffering.
Tulane professor Melissa Harris-Perry also talked about the letter over the weekend on her MSNBC show. Here's video, which includes clips of Tulane students reciting parts of King's letter.
Two years ago, Jay Smooth of IllDoctrine reflected on "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and felt so strongly about it that he recorded a video of himself reciting parts in which King challenges the assumption that a minister should fear being called "an extremist" when it comes to obtaining justice. I've posted that video again below.
And as many readers of this blog know, I keep my digital remembrance of Dr. King up online at king.writingjunkie.net.