Watch Live: The Washington Ideas Forum 2014

Anna Deavere Smith Recites MLK's 'Letter From a Birmingham Jail'

"I think I should give the reason for my being in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the argument of 'outsiders coming in.'"

ADS-MLK-Banner.jpg The Aspen Institute

In April 1963, under police detention in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King read an open letter, published in a local newspaper, from a number of southern white clergymen calling for an end to civil-rights demonstrations—which they considered "unwise and untimely." King began drafting a response in the margins of the paper. The result was his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," which our magazine republished for a national readership in the summer of '63, and which became, according to the scholar Randall Kennedy—as The Atlantic's editor in chief James Bennet recalled to an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival over the weekend—"twentieth-century America's most quoted and inspiring manifesto in defense of humane civil disobedience."

"Nothing better animates the idea of universal human rights," Kennedy wrote, "than [King's] declaration that 'injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'"

Here, in the work's 50th-anniversary year, Anna Deavere Smith performs excerpts from from the "Letter," accompanied by Robert Duffy on violin and Anne Epperson on piano ...

J.J. Gould is the editor of TheAtlantic.com. More

He has written for The Washington MonthlyThe American ProspectThe Moscow Times, The Chronicle Herald, and The European Journal of Political Theory. Gould was previously an editor at the Journal of Democracy, co-published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy, and a lecturer in history and politics at Yale University. He has also worked with McKinsey & Company's New York-based Knowledge Group on global public- and social-sector development and on the economics of carbon-emissions reduction. Gould has a B.A. in history from McGill University in Montreal, an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in politics from Yale. He is from Nova Scotia.

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