Letters From the Archives is a series in which we highlight past Atlantic stories and reactions from readers at the time.
On April 12, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy led a march of some 50 black protestors through Birmingham, Alabama. It was Good Friday. “We want to march for freedom on the day Jesus hung on the cross for freedom,” King said prior to the event. But their march was cut short. King and Abernathy, among many others, were arrested by city police for parading without a permit; the leaders were placed in solitary confinement.
This particular march was just one of a handful of demonstrations in Alabama that spring organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Civil-rights fighters picketed, used white-only libraries, and participated in sit-ins at white-only lunch counters. In response to the freedom movement, a blanket injunction was issued by Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins Jr. prohibiting “every imaginable form of demonstrations including boycotting, trespassing, parading, picketing, sit-ins, kneel-ins, wade-ins and the inciting or encouraging of such acts,” the Associated Press reported. The April 11, 1963, article noted that King—“the behind-the-scenes director of the current movement”—and other SCLC organizers, who were told specifically not to demonstrate, were planning to defy the injunction and march anyway. “This [is] a flagrant denial of our constitutional privileges,” King declared.
While in jail, King was given a copy of “A Call for Unity,” an open letter written by eight moderate, white Alabama clergymen criticizing the demonstrations initiated by “outsiders” and urging negotiations instead. “We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized,” they wrote. “But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.” Using what he could find—the margins of the newspaper in which the statement was published, scraps of paper, his attorney’s legal pad—King wrote a letter in response to the religious leaders.
He not only clarified that the SCLC was invited by its local affiliate to Birmingham, but also explained that he could not “sit idly by” in his hometown of Atlanta as Birmingham fought for freedom. “Injustice anywhere,” he famously wrote, “is a threat to justice everywhere.” Certain promises had been made in negotiating sessions, such as the removal of “humiliating racial signs from stores,” King wrote; however, those promises had not been kept. There was no alternative but nonviolent direct action, which, King later noted, would never be “well-timed” according to the timetable of those who hadn’t experienced segregation: “For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’” King expressed how disappointed he was in the clergymen and, more broadly, the white church and its leadership. “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro,” King wrote, “I see white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities … I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.”
King’s letter, now widely known as “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” was published in a handful of newspapers and magazines, including The Atlantic, which printed it in August 1963 under the title “The Negro Is Your Brother.”
The letters from readers that The Atlantic printed in response were largely positive.
Having witnessed sit-in demonstrations in Knoxville, Tennessee, open-occupancy hearings in the San Francisco Bay Area, and a civil-rights demonstration in his hometown, Richard E. Gillespie of Phoenix, Arizona, agreed with King’s statement that “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is … the white moderate, who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Gillespie said King’s words had “indelibly imprinted themselves in my mind as a classic articulation of the motivation of the white moderate.”
A few readers put King’s ideas in conversation with other pieces from the August issue.
“Dr. King’s emphasis of the fact that the churches have not taken a stand on this matter of integration,” wrote Margaret G. Taber of Madison, New Jersey, “is a very sad one.” Taber applied King’s critique of religious institutions to Agnes Meyer’s article “The Nation’s Worst Slum,” also in the August 1963 issue of The Atlantic, in which she outlined how Washington, D.C., had neglected to give non-elite blacks work opportunities. Meyer’s point that “the black elite have not helped those of their poorer brethren,” Taber wrote, was “well taken.” But urging black communities to “raise [their] own standards” would not, Taber argued, “solve the problem.” She found her way back to King:
Few of our churches have preached that a person should be accepted as an individual regardless of color or race. Yet they should take the lead in urging acceptance of Negroes or Puerto Ricans or other minority groups.
In addition to “The Nation’s Worst Slum,” the August issue included a series called “Our Gamble in Space” about the potential moon landing. The juxtaposition “aroused an ironic reaction” in Frances Records Storms of Glasgow, Missouri, who took issue with the idea of “world prestige” that Franklin A. Lindsay emphasized would come with winning the space race in his article “The Costs and the Choices.”
“When the propaganda and rationalizations turn to national prestige, what can counteract Little Rock, New Orleans, Birmingham, Ole Miss, Medgar Evers?” Storms asked. He considered the moon landing the wrong priority: “How convincing is the argument of international one-upmanship or the iffyness of landing instruments or men on Mars in the context of human needs at home?” While the estimated $30 billion for the moon project “would not answer all of the questions raised by Agnes Meyer, by Dr. King,” Storms wrote, that money “plus a proportionate surge of human effort would go a very long way toward redressing the inequities existing for citizens of all colors in the United States.”
Finally, David K. Donald of Garden City, Michigan, thanked The Atlantic—“with all my heart as a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant”—for printing the letter “for a larger impact.”