“Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”
– Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”
April 16, 1963
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” is considered by many civil-rights historians to be one of the seminal writings of the era, on par with King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But while King’s moving oration at the Lincoln Memorial was delivered directly to thousands, his impassioned letter was composed in solitary confinement and would not have seen the light of day without the help of several brave and dedicated intermediaries.
In the spring of 1963, King was arrested after he and others in the racial equality movement defied a court injunction against public protesting. From behind bars, he obtained a copy of a joint statement written by white religious leaders criticizing his methods. King felt compelled to respond. As the daughters of King’s attorney, Arthur Shores, explain in their father’s biography, King scribbled his response in the margins of old newspapers and on toilet paper and other paper scraps. His lawyers smuggled the notes out of the jail to be transcribed, then they smuggled the edits back into the jail for King to review. Eventually, the letter made it onto the pages of several influential newspapers.
If King were a prisoner in the state of Alabama today, those supporters may very well have first published the letter on King’s Facebook page. But under current Alabama law, that would have been a crime:
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