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Dr. King, author of the

Three astonishing details about MLK’s historic “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Happy New Year! I hope your 2024 is off to a great start. If you’re like most (or me anyway), you’ve still got winter decorations to take down.

But don’t miss that the year begins with a celebration of a man whose name and work are forever proof of the power of free speech to change the world. This Monday, we observe Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, in honor of the Baptist minister, civil rights leader, and nonviolence advocate who turned a dream into words and words into reality.

If you haven’t read Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” it’s one of the most iconic texts in American history. I highly recommend sitting down with it.

It’s just over 60 years old, but the principles and promise it evokes go back as far as America’s founding, and it belongs alongside the seminal works of political philosophy in world history.

Here are three reasons why champions of our country’s principles count Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” among our most cherished works:

Though he may be most well-known for his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington, his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is no less powerful, despite being written down rather than delivered orally and broadcast live by television stations across the country.

  • Parts of Dr. King’s letter had to be written on newspapers and scraps of paper, as those were initially the only writing materials available to him. His lawyers then smuggled the pieces of paper out of the jail and pieced them together with help from other civil rights advocates.

Dr. King had not planned to write the letter but felt called to do so after reading a newspaper while in jail that contained “A Call for Unity,” in which eight white Alabama clergymen criticized his methods.

So another thing you realize about Dr. King’s letter is the courage it and his whole life required. He wrote the letter not from a place of comfort, but from a place of significant physical danger. At the time, a Birmingham jail was by no measure a place of safety for a Black American civil rights leader like Martin Luther King, Jr. But he took that risk to secure a better future for all Americans.

  • The demonstrated depth of Dr. King’s intellect and literary knowledge is astonishing.

Though Dr. King was writing from a jail cell, with no texts in front of him to review, he not only referred to biblical passages, Supreme Court decisions, and figures like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Nebuchadnezzar, and Socrates, he also directly quoted Jesus, Amos, the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson.

It reads like a scholarly work of a man with access to libraries of information. But Dr. King didn’t have that luxury. He did, however, have a lifetime of study and deep conviction to draw from, and it’s on full display in his letter.

When Benjamin Franklin told the woman outside the Continental Congress that we had “a Republic, if you can keep it,” he may not have imagined a Martin Luther King, Jr., as the protector of the Constitution, a leader who encouraged America to live up to its promises. But that’s what Dr. King did.

If “Letter from Birmingham Jail” inspires you this weekend, MLK Day is also a National Day of Service. In fact, it’s the only federal holiday designated as one.

Building things together and collaborating to improve our communities helps us to feel more connected to our shared American identity. So you can celebrate Dr. King and his work by volunteering to improve your community – or even beyond it.

Let me know if you read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and have thoughts, or if you volunteer this weekend and would like to share your experience – I’d love to hear from you! Just email me at freespeech@afphq.org.

 

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