Paper Matters Blog
The Power of a Paper Letter: Letter from Birmingham Jail

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his iconic letter, ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ 57 years ago. As we pause to reflect on the many ways he was a champion for social justice, the letter he wrote in a Birmingham jail was in many ways the historical equivalent of a ‘mic drop.’ King’s letter eloquently states the case for racial equality and the immediate need for social justice. The letter is an open letter to eight members of the Birmingham clergy and aimed to correct their misconceptions and to defend King’s nonviolent civil demonstrations against racial injustice.

While 57 years is not terribly long ago, I’m fascinated with how MLK wrote his letter, and I think of what if that same scenario was present today. Would the email, tweet or text message from Birmingham Jail carry the same gravitas? I think not. The power of a paper letter stands the test of time.

King wrote and rewrote his letters in several drafts on pieces of paper scraps, mainly the margins of a newspaper. The handwritten letter consists of 7,000 words in which he passionately responds to religious leaders, which criticized King and others who had been demonstrating to bring attention to racist treatment in Birmingham, Alabama. Can you imagine writing a letter that consists of 7,000 words today? The typed letter was eventually 21 double-spaced pages. It was not published immediately but picked up by several publications throughout the country months later, namely The Atlantic and became a cornerstone of the civil rights campaign.

This letter is arguably one of the most historically significant letters of our time. It’s a tangible, written account thoughtfully penned in longhand on scraps of paper. The letter is now studied in schools and colleges all over the world. Samford University history professor Jonathan Bass called it “the most important written document of the Civil Rights Era.” The power of King’s prose and philosophies are forever etched in history and our minds through a letter. It’s a pretty powerful letter and one that will forever stand the test of time.

*This blog was originally published 01.21.2019 and updated on 01.20.2020

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