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MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, 50 Years Later


Production continues on the Walden Family Theater adaptation of The Watsons Go to Birmingham, but today we shift our focus to the real-life city of Birmingham, Alabama where the Birmingham Public Library is sponsoring a global celebration of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail.


Individuals and groups around the world will host public readings of the letter at “libraries, museums, schools, universities, churches, synagogues, temples, work places, public parks, bookstores, street corners, coffee shops and anywhere people want to participate,” according to the sponsors. To learn more, or to register your participation, click here. To download a copy of King’s letter, click here.

To help today’s students better understand the context of King’s letter, the Southern Poverty Law Center has put together an extensive timeline of the events of 1963.

(The following is excerpted with permission from materials compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center. For the full text, click here.)

By the end of 1962, the stress of conducting small, simultaneous actions across the South had taken its toll on civil rights workers. Resources were exhausted and there hadn’t been a major victory since the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56. But when newly elected Gov. George Wallace of Alabama declared “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in January 1963, it was clear to civil rights leaders that a change in strategy was needed.

On April 3, Fred Shuttlesworth and other civil rights leaders made the decision to consolidate their efforts in Birmingham, then the most segregated city in the South. Shuttlesworth invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to come from Atlanta and join them. Activists in Birmingham conducted daily mass demonstrations against white business owners and city officials who continued to reinforce segregation. Many protesters, including Dr. King, were jailed.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, written on April 16, 1963.  But unless students read it in context, they will not see it for what it was –won’t understand why King and others had come to believe that small, isolated victories would no longer be enough. The time for extreme action was at hand.