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50 Readers / 50 Years: A Discussion of the 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail

On January 30, 2013 the Brown-Tougaloo Partnership (BTP) presented a special reading of and reflection on the Letter from Birmingham Jail, as the Letter and BTP approach 50th anniversaries.

Hosted simultaneously at Brown and Tougaloo, this program included a special video presentation of students, faculty, and staff on both campuses reading the Letter from Birmingham Jail together.

Professor Alfredlene Armstrong of Tougaloo and Professor Francoise Hamlin of Brown facilitated the discussion.

The Letter

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned this provocative missive sitting in jail in Birmingham, Alabama on 16 April 1963. Reading a newspaper someone had given to him in solitary confinement, he saw a notice published by eight clergymen criticizing King’s recent leadership of protest activities, as lawless and extremist. Answering the letter in the margins of the newspaper and on scraps of paper, later smuggled out to his assistants, King challenged the moral content of religious institutions that chose not adhere to their religious teachings when tested with the moral dilemma of segregation. As we commemorate 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, we choose to also commemorate the 50th anniversary of this letter as a tribute to the continuing black freedom struggle and the broad and always relevant legacy of Dr. King’s life work.

The Letter from Birmingham Jail can be roughly divided into eight sections. The sections are not of equal length:

  • Section 1 is introductory and establishes King’s right to be in Birmingham.
  • Section 2 describes the actions of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in Birmingham.
  • Section 3 argues against the claim that King and his associates should wait—that their actions were “untimely”.
  • Section 4 addresses the issue of breaking some laws while upholding others, and draws the distinction between just and unjust laws.
  • Section 5 expresses King’s disappointment with white moderates.
  • Section 6 addresses the charge that King is “extreme,” and argues that his form of extremism is more moral than measures advocated by the moderates.
  • Section 7 expresses King’s disappointment with the white church.
  • Section 8 argues that praise for the Birmingham police is misdirected, contrasts their actions with the more genuinely disciplined and meaningful courage of the demonstrators, and segues into the closing three paragraphs.

Points To Consider

  • historical events in the mass movement thus far
  • Rev. King's tone, audience and aims
  • the role of religion and the church in maintaining and dismantling segregation
  • the role of nonviolent direct action in the moral argument

Acknowledgments

The Brown-Tougaloo Partnership thanks all of the many individuals and groups who made this project possible. So many people contributed to this project in so many different, important ways that we can't possibly thank them all individually. A special thanks to our 50+ readers including President Beverly Hogan and President Christina H. Paxson, both Presidents' and Provosts' Offices, the entire Brown-Tougaloo Partnership Committee and Student Advisory on both campuses, the Office of Academic Affairs at Tougaloo, the Office of Institutional Diversity and Office of the Dean of the College at Brown, and the Advisory Council on Relations with Tougaloo College. Last but not least, we thank our Media Services specialists on both campuses and their extra efforts without which this project would not have been.