Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke powerful words. Words that continue to inspire thousands of people around the world as they work toward equality. King’s speeches have become so famous, in fact, that we often neglect his equally impassioned written work.
While confined in a Birmingham, Ala., jail in 1963 for violating a law prohibiting demonstrations, King received an open letter from white clergy criticizing his strategy and leadership in the Birmingham struggle for civil rights.
On April 16, 1963, King wrote “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in defense of his civil rights actions in Birmingham.
“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states,” he wrote. “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Today, on the 50th anniversary of the writing of “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” people all around the world will host readings of King’s letter. Some will be in schools. Others will be in public parks or houses of worship. Still others will be at coffee shops or at bookstores. In Montgomery, Ala., the Civil Rights Memorial Center’s Director Lecia Brooks will read the letter aloud. You can hear the full 32-minute recording here.
This worldwide celebration of King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” was conceived of as Jim Baggett, head archivist at the Birmingham Public Library, planned for the local anniversary event one year.
“Our first thought was to have a public reading of the letter at the library,” Baggett said. “Then we wanted to expand and have readings around the city.” Eventually the event grew to include more than 225 events on all seven continents.
The words that comprise “Letter From Birmingham Jail” may not be as well-known as “I have a dream,” but they evoke an equally powerful reaction from both children and adults. Will you share them with your students today?
Williamson is associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.
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