Letter from Birmingham Jail | Study Guide

Martin Luther King Jr.

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Letter from Birmingham Jail | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Martin Luther King, Jr.'s name is synonymous with the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, during which he led nonviolent protests to end legalized discrimination against and provide economic opportunities for African Americans. On April 16, 1963, King penned one of the most famous documents of the effort, "Letter from Birmingham Jail." King wrote this letter from inside a jail cell after his arrest at a protest in Birmingham, Alabama.

Birmingham became a hotbed of civil rights activity during the early 1960s. The city in the deep South was one of the most racially divided locales in the country, and King knew that staging protests there was essential for the movement. King's plight was made all the more difficult by the local police overseer, Eugene "Bull" Connor, who cracked down on protests and allowed the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate black activists. To this day, "Letter from Birmingham Jail" remains one of the most important documents of the civil rights movement as well as a declaration of King's dedication to racial justice.

1. Part of "Letter from Birmingham Jail" had to be written on toilet paper.

Since King wrote "Letter from Birmingham Jail" while incarcerated, he had to be creative with the writing tools at his disposal. Since the letter was initially a response to an article entitled "A Call to Unity" written by white clergy, King began filling the blank margins of the newspaper with his text. When he ran out of room, King continued writing on the only remaining source of paper: toilet paper. Later, King's allies outside the jail would have a difficult time deciphering his handwriting, which was described as "chicken scratch scrawl."

2. King's arrest was in response to a ban on race-related protests in Birmingham.

The protests leading up to King's arrest had become increasingly publicized, and King hoped that they would draw national attention to the civil rights struggle in Birmingham. On April 10, 1963, a local judge issued an order prohibiting any further protests in the area—an order King would promptly disobey. King's time in jail was a result of continuing to demonstrate and organize marches despite this ban, which the local government had clearly put in place to draw attention away from Birmingham's blatant racial disparity and segregation. A local newspaper ran an article warning citizens that the activists fully intended to protest despite the ban.

3. "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was a response to those who wanted King to resist segregation in the courts, not the streets.

On April 12, 1963, a local Alabama paper published an article entitled "A Call to Unity," which insisted that King fight his battle for equal rights in court and not "in the streets." The clergymen wrote that King's protests were "unwise and untimely" and called for a "constructive and realistic approach to racial problems." While it was clear that the authors of this article didn't necessarily disagree with King's goals, King was frustrated that moderate whites continually disapproved of the direct action he felt was crucial to bringing attention to racism in the United States. It was this frustration that led King to write "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

4. King's attorney had to smuggle the letter out of the Birmingham jail.

After writing "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in newspaper margins and on toilet paper, King faced the logistical problem of getting the letter out of his cell. King's attorney, Arthur Davis Shores, assisted him by smuggling out scraps of the letter in order to piece it together with King's friends and allies. The NAACP activist Wyatt Walker and his secretary assembled and decoded the various scraps of paper. The letter was made public hours later on April 16, 1963 when it was sent to various editors for consideration. Although the letter was excerpted without King's permission in May, it's first official publication was in the magazine Liberation in June 1963.

5. The letter expressed frustration not with racist whites, but with white moderates.

"Letter from Birmingham Jail" was written in response not to racist instigators or Ku Klux Klan members, but instead to moderate white clergymen. The article "A Call to Unity" had angered King because it neglected to address the urgency of the civil rights movement and advocated maintaining orderly conduct above all else. King disagreed with this mentality and viewed the moderate position as nearly as harmful as that of explicit racism. In "Letter from Birmingham Jail," King specifically addresses this white moderate mentality, describing:

The white moderate ... who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.

6. A New York City paper published excerpts of the letter—without King's permission.

In May 1963 the New York Times wanted to publish King's letter, at the advice of now-famous editor Harvey Shapiro. However, the news source backed out at the last minute, and the letter never appeared in the Times. This last-minute decision was made because the Times's rival, the New York Post, published "Letter from Birmingham Jail"—without King's knowledge or permission.

7. The Kennedy administration was worried King's demonstrations would become riots.

Although the authorities were the cause of the violence at King's Birmingham demonstrations—unleashing dogs on protestors, turning fire hoses on activists, and conducting mass arrests—politicians feared that King's peaceful protests would inevitably morph into riots. Although King sought help from President John F. Kennedy's administration, Kennedy's vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, consistently warned:

Issues which are not settled by justice and fair play will sooner or later be settled by force and violence.

Even Kennedy's black adviser, Louis Martin, believed violence was unavoidable, stating:

The accelerated tempo of Negro restiveness may create the most critical state of race relations since the Civil War.

Despite this national climate of suspicion, King maintained a commitment to nonviolent methods of action.

8. King was born under a different name.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was actually born Michael King Jr. His father, Michael King, Sr., took the name Martin Luther King after a trip to Germany with his son in 1934. As a Baptist minister, King's father became fascinated with the 16th-century Reformation leader Martin Luther after visiting "Luther Country" in Germany—a common name given to the bordering states of Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia. King's father adopted the religious leader's name for both himself and his son, who would forever go by "Martin Luther King, Jr." during his career as a minister and activist.

9. King allegedly tried to commit suicide as a child.

During his youth, King experienced a traumatic event, which nearly caused him to commit suicide. King's grandmother died in 1941, when he was 12, and he was emotionally tortured by the fact that he'd been watching a parade against his parents' wishes at the time of her death. Allegedly, King jumped from a second-story window in his home in a fit of despair, attempting to end his own life.

10. King donated all of his Nobel Peace Prize money to the civil rights movement.

In 1964, just a year after "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was written, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his continuous commitment to nonviolent protest against racial discrimination. In accord with his dedication to the civil rights movement, King donated his prize money—valued at $54,600—to furthering his mission.

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