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Letter from Birmingham Jail

John F Kennedy

Letter from Birmingham Jail: John F Kennedy was the 35th American President who served in office from January 20,1961 to November 22, 1963. One of the important events during his presidency was the Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Definition and Summary of the Letter from Birmingham Jail

Summary and definition: The Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr. was written on April 16, 1963 and is the most eloquent and profound defense of his non-violent program for the Civil Rights movement.

In the Letter from Birmingham Jail Martin Luther King, Jr. responds to a full-page advertisement in the Birmingham News, signed by eight white clergy, demanding “A Call for Unity” and challenging the appropriateness of MLK's “outside” involvement in the affairs of Birmingham, Alabama.

Summary of the Letter from Birmingham Jail
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. replies to his critics in a disarming, conciliatory and moderate tone. He explains that although the demonstrators and protesters in the Civil Rights Movement were breaking the law, their actions were obeying a higher moral law, as opposed to a human law, based on divine justice. MLK was referring to St. Augustine who had said that "an unjust law is no law at all".

Martin Luther King justified the tactic of civil disobedience by equating it to the Bible when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to obey Nebuchadnezzar’s unjust laws. And just as the early colonists had staged the Boston Tea Party, he refused to submit to laws and injunctions that were "used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest".

 In answer to the charge that the protests created racial tensions, Martin Luther King, Jr. responded with “We who in engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive” Injustice, MLK insisted, had to be exposed "to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured". MLK's aim was, like the apostles and prophets in the Bible who had traveled distances to challenge injustice and bring the "gospel of freedom". His belief was that all citizens of the United States were bound in purpose and future.

Facts about Letter from Birmingham Jail
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Letter from Birmingham Jail.

The Civil Rights Movement had gained momentum with the successes of the Montgomery Bus Boycott followed by the Little Rock Nine and the protests of the Freedom Riders to desegregate education and transport facilities.

Despite the victories of the Civil Rights activists, discriminatory practices continued in many southern states. The fierce opposition to desegregation was highlighted in Mississippi.

n 1962 race riots erupted in Mississippi on the "Ole Miss" campus and the nearby town of Oxford over the first black student to University of Mississippi. The riots began in September 1962 when the registration of Civil Rights activist James Meredith was refused at the segregated University of Mississippi, known as "Ole Miss".

The rioting at the campus resulted in the deaths of 2 people with at least 75 others injured. The riots spread from the campus to the nearby town of Oxford. President John Kennedy was forced to send 500 federal marshals to escort James Meredith into the "Ole Miss" campus

The federal marshals were attacked by an angry, violent white mob and 160 of the federal marshals were injured. Rocks, concrete and stones were hurled and even acid was thrown at the troops. The situation was so serious that JFK was forced to send thousands more to keep the peace.

The events surrounding James Meredith and the "Ole Miss" campus riots shocked and dismayed Martin Luther King, Jr. It appeared that the Federal Government would only enforce the desegregation laws if a situation resulted in violence and riots. Although JFK had intervened to quash the disorder he had not made any move to pass a new Civil Rights law.

The race riot at the University of Mississippi ("Ole Miss") led to a reign of terror against black citizens and many influential whites began to agitate for "massive resistance" to integration.

A Citizens Council was established by Mississippi whites to maintain white supremacy and organize a network of groups to enforce racial segregation. Many of these groups were supported by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

The situation in Birmingham, Mississippi was especially volatile. Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, who had supported attacks on Freedom Riders, was running for Mayor. He was endorsed by Governor George C. Wallace.

Bull Connor's racist attitude to African Americans would gain momentum if he was elected to such an influential position in which he would be able to enforce racial segregation and deny civil rights to black citizens

Eugene "Bull" Connor lost the election for mayor on April 2, 1963, but he and his fellow commissioners then filed suit to block the change in power.

Martin Luther King, Jr. realized that the only way to pressurize the federal government to make changes to Civil Rights legislation was to create another type of crisis in order to bargain with the federal government.

The day after the election,  Martin Luther King, Jr. made the decision to lead Civil Rights protests in Birmingham, the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States of America. 

MLK began the Birmingham campaign called 'Project C' (for "confrontation") in Birmingham, against the police tactics used by Bull Connor and his subordinates and other Southern police officials.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC planned to target the business section of Birmingham through the process of economic boycott together with non-violent demonstrations, a series of mass meetings, lunch counter sit-ins and marches on Birmingham City Hall.

On 10 April the Birmingham city government obtained a state circuit court injunction against the protests. After a long debate, campaign leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. decided to disobey the court order.

On Good Friday, 12 April 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested for violating the anti-protest injunction against mass public demonstrations. MLK was to remain in jail, in solitary confinement, for 11 days before he was released on bail.

On the day of his arrest, eight white Birmingham clergy members wrote a criticism of the campaign that was published as a full-page advertisement in the Birmingham News. They demanded “A Call for Unity” and challenged the appropriateness of the “outside” involvement of Martin Luther King in the affairs of Birmingham, Alabama.

The article also referred to the  direct action strategy of MLK as "unwise and untimely" and appealed "to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense".

As the events of the Birmingham Campaign ('Project C') intensified on the streets of Birmingham , Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., composed a letter from his prison cell in response to the Birmingham clergy members criticisms of the campaign.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote the Letter from Birmingham Jail on scraps of paper and the margins of newspapers. He gave the bits and pieces of paper to his lawyers who passed them to Reverend Wyatt Walker who began compiling and editing the text of the letter.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was released on bail on 20 April 1963. The protests in Birmingham continued with a controversial new tactic, a Children's Crusade, that used young people in the demonstrations.

On May 2, 1963, the first children, ranging from 6–18 years of age,  walked out of the 16th Street Baptist Church and attempted to march to Birmingham's City Hall to talk to Bull Connor. By the end of the day 959 children, had been arrested.

The reaction to the arrests led to massive numbers of young demonstrators joining the protest. On May 3, 1963 Bull Connor ordered the use of fire hoses and attack dogs on the demonstrators.

The newspapers and television published images of children being attacked by police dogs, blasted by high-pressure fire hoses and clubbed by police officers. People were horrified and the violence in Birmingham triggered international outrage.

By May 7, 1963, Bull Connor and the police department had jailed over 3000 demonstrators and the adverse publicity had caused an uproar.

On May 11, 1963, Bull Connor was ordered to vacate his office following the Alabama Supreme Court decision in favor of a Mayor-Council government

On May 10, 1963 the Senior Citizens Committee, who represented a majority of Birmingham businesses, came to an agreement with the Martin Luther King and the SCLC.

The committee agreed on the desegregation of lunch counters, restrooms, fitting rooms and drinking fountains, the upgrading and hire of African Americans and cooperation with SCLC legal representatives in releasing all demonstrators who had been jailed.

President John F. Kennedy was outraged at the violence and level of brutality used in Birmingham. He was acutely embarrassed by the international media coverage and concerned by accusations that the government was losing control. He ordered his administration to prepare a new Civil Rights Bill.

Martin Luther King, Jr. realized that JFK would have difficulty pushing the new Civil Rights Bill through Congress and organized the March on Washington to apply pressure to the government.

One year after the Birmingham Campaign, Martin Luther King, Jr. revised the Letter from Birmingham Jail and presented it as a chapter in his 1964 memoir of the Birmingham Campaign. His book was modeled on the basic themes set out in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

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