King wrote the letter on the margins of a newspaper, which was the only paper available to him, and then gave bits and pieces of the letter to his lawyers to take back to movement headquarters, where the Reverend Wyatt Walker began compiling and editing the literary jigsaw puzzle.
An editor at the New York Times Magazine, Harvey Shapiro, asked King to write his letter for publication in the magazine, but the Times chose not to publish it. Extensive excerpts from the letter were published, without King's consent, on May 19, 1963 in the New York Post Sunday Magazine. The letter was first published as "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in the June 1963 issue of Liberation, the June 12, 1963 edition of The Christian Century, and in the June 24, 1963 issue of The New Leader. The letter gained more popularity as summer went on, and was reprinted in the July Atlantic Monthly as "The Negro Is Your Brother." King included a version of the full text in his 1964 book Why We Can't Wait.
A 1999 study found that the essay was highly anthologized in that it was reprinted 50 times in 325 editions of 58 readers published between 1964 and 1996 that were intended for use in college-level composition courses.