This Month in the Movement: Fiftieth Anniversary of the Letter from Birmingham Jail
King’s 12 April 1963 arrest for violating Alabama’s law against mass public demonstrations took place just over a week after the campaign’s commencement. In an effort to revive the campaign, King and Ralph Abernathy had donned work clothes and marched from Sixth Avenue Baptist Church into a waiting police wagon. The day of his arrest, eight Birmingham clergy members wrote a criticism of the campaign that was published in the Birmingham News, calling its direct action strategy “unwise and untimely” and appealing “to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”
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.”
In Why We Can’t Wait, King recalled in an author’s note accompanying the letter’s re-publication: “Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.” After countering the charge that he was an “outside agitator” in the body of the letter, King sought to explain the value of a “nonviolent campaign” and its “four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustice exists; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” He went on to explain that the purpose of direct action is “to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”
To read more about the letter, visit the Online King Encyclopedia, here.