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

Letters carry a certain weight, it’s undeniable. When your phone buzzes, it could be anything from the latest sports final to a fun meme from a friend, but when you receive an envelope that’s personally addressed to you and full of mystery, your heart cannot help but jump. What could be so important, that it had to be written down? What was so personal, that it needed to be sealed and addressed to your eyes alone? An invitation? Condolences? Context clues will tell you what you need to know. What’s the return address…Birmingham, Alabama? Maybe it’s from a vacation destination, but who wrote it? The one and only Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This is one letter that is a must-read.

Martin_Luther_King_Jr_Birmingham

Police mugshot of Martin Luther King Jr following his arrest for protests in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963. From the Gado Modern Color series. (Gado/Getty Images)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his iconic letter, ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ 59 years ago, but the words throughout this letter ring louder than ever. While 59 years is not terribly long ago, we can’t help but think of what if that same scenario was present today. Would the email, tweeted press release or lengthy text message from Birmingham Jail carry the same gravitas? We 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. Why would he take the time to painstakingly work his words into the margins, if they weren’t among his most important? The handwritten letter consists of 7,000 words in which he passionately responds to religious leaders who 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? Matter of fact, when was the last time you wrote a letter? CBS News reports that “37% of adults polled in the U.S. say it’s been over five years since they’ve written and sent a personal letter through the mail, and just 33% said they’ve written one within the past 12 months.” 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.

Letters have long been an important source of biographical information, and a powerful tool for historians of all kinds. They allow the reader to peek behind the curtain and can provide a sense of intimate knowledge of historical subjects, like in Dr. King’s Letter. As we pause to reflect on the many ways that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a champion for social justice, recognize that while the letter he wrote in a Birmingham jail was in many ways the historical equivalent of a ‘mic drop,’ any of us are free to pick the mic back and attempt to continue from where he ended. The letter is eloquently stated message to eight members of the Birmingham clergy and aimed to correct their misconceptions and to defend King’s nonviolent civil demonstrations against racial injustice, who will your words address and how long will they last?

 

*This blog was originally published 01.21.2019 and updated on 01.17.2022

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