Though initially begun for a specific purpose, the letter that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote while incarcerated in Birmingham ultimately addressed universal questions of freedom and inequality. It is because of its ambitious reach that “Letter from Birmingham Jail” has remained such an enduring document, arguably one of the most important American works of theology or philosophy.
In 1963, Dr. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was invited to Birmingham to aid one of its affiliates in protesting intense segregationist policies. The SCLC had become famous for such movements, having found its first success in Montgomery during a yearlong bus boycott. However, since that time, the organization had floundered, seeking its next great Civil Rights victory. A relative failure during a movement in Albany, Georgia had convinced Dr. King that the only way to affect the national consciousness was to “dramatize” the situation, as he explains in the “Letter” (172). In other words, he needed to find a situation where the violent forces of segregation could be externalized, captured in media images.
Birmingham promised such a situation, since its Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, was an unabashed and brutal racist. However, in the early days of the movement, Connor showed great restraint, using little violence to combat protestors so as to dissuade national media coverage. Knowing that his fame could help dramatize the situation, Dr. King led some allies on a public protest despite lacking a permit to do so, hoping thereby to facilitate his arrest.
Indeed, Dr. King was arrested for that protest, although with minimal violence. Connor had seemingly won the battle, and his oppressive methods – which included locking Dr. King in solitary, an extreme punishment for a minor offense – were conducted outside of the media’s view.
Understandably, Dr. King was angry over having been bested, but that anger was greatly exacerbated when one of his allies brought him a local newspaper. Printed in the paper was an open letter, written and signed by eight local clergymen of different faiths (Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish). Though these clergymen were ostensibly opponents of segregation, their statement criticized Dr. King and the SCLC, calling them outsiders who had come into a situation uninvited and thereby stirred up trouble that might lead to violence.
Dr. King was incensed. Not only had his career-long devotion to nonviolence been mostly ignored by the statement, but the criticisms were directed solely at the SCLC, while the racist police force had been explicitly commended. In a flurry, he began to write, using the margins of the newspapers to frame his message. Over time, he would be released from solitary and given a legal pad to compose, but he had made it clear that a lack of comfort would not hamper his expression of disappointment and perseverance.
King’s allies were overjoyed when he presented them with pages, which they quickly typed and circulated to the press. And yet the “Letter” had very little immediate impact. Instead, other developments in the Birmingham campaign would ensure that movement’s success. But the “Letter” grew steadily more exposed and admired, and was roundly applauded when published officially in Dr. King’s 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait. Though overshadowed in grandeur by the “I Have a Dream” speech he delivered only months after writing the “Letter,” it is arguably this latter work that has had the most palpable impact.
(Perhaps the only group that did not widely enthuse about the “Letter” were the clergymen quoted in the newspaper piece. While several of those men ignored the public response, some did attempt to rectify the charges by redoubling their efforts towards Civil Rights. Rabbi Grafman, a Jewish author referred to in the “Letter,” reports that he was contacted even decades later by students who had read the “Letter” and wondered whether he remained a bigot.)
What emerged in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a document that not only exemplifies the nonviolent crusade for American Civil Rights, but has influenced freedom movements throughout the world. It has been translated into several languages, and linked to protests in places like Argentina, Poland, China, and Iran. For its historical importance, for its clear explanation of the concepts of nonviolence and civil disobedience, and for its unmistakable eloquence and rhetoric, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” remains a seminal piece of American philosophy that is studied in high schools and colleges to this day.