This week on StoryWeb: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s essay “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
In April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was in Birmingham, Alabama, protesting racism and racial segregation in the city. He was arrested on Good Friday for demonstrating, which a circuit court judge had prohibited. While he was in solitary confinement, Dr. King wrote what is arguably the most important letter in American history. It was addressed to the white clergy of Birmingham, who had publicly criticized Dr. King for getting involved in a matter far from his home in Atlanta. Dr. King began drafting his responses on the very newspaper in which the eight white ministers had published their “call for unity.” According to the Washington Post, he continued writing on “scraps of paper, paper towels and slips of yellow legal paper smuggled into his cell.”
The justly famous letter – now known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail” – draws both from the early Christian tradition of letter writing (often from jails) and the African American preaching tradition. Following Paul’s strategy of writing epistles while incarcerated for his beliefs (the origin of several books in the New Testament), Dr. King reaches out to his fellow brethren of the clergy, appealing to them on the basis of their shared faith. At the same time, Dr. King draws on the rich oratory of the black church. While this letter was printed in a variety of publications and was therefore meant to be read, it bears reading aloud to hear the cadence of the prose.
Dr. King acknowledges his debt to many thinkers before him, among them Socrates, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, T.S. Eliot, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich. A particular influence here and throughout the entire civil rights movement is Henry David Thoreau. When he addresses unjust laws and the responsibility of people of good conscience to protest such laws, Dr. King echoes Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government.” This essay, also known as “Civil Disobedience,” was composed after Thoreau spent one night in the Concord, Massachusetts, jail for failure to pay a poll tax. The tax would have gone, in part, to support the Mexican-American War, which Thoreau and other abolitionists believed was being waged to expand the practice of slavery in the United States. Thoreau was an ardent supporter of the abolitionist cause. In fact, his cabin at Walden Pond was sometimes used as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Thoreau welcomed runaway slaves at his cabin during the day and took them to safe houses in Concord at night.
Dr. King looked to Thoreau, among others, for inspiration for his theory of nonviolent direct action, a practice he outlines and defends in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” So closely linked are Thoreau’s essay and Dr. King’s letter that they have even been published together. Dr. King wrote in his autobiography:
During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience” for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement. . . . Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississi