Behind the Birmingham Letter

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

One of the most historic pieces to ever appear in the pages of The Atlantic is MLK’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” published in our August 1963 issue. Dr. King had released it a few months earlier, on April 16—53 years ago today. The open letter was in response to a public statement from eight Alabama clergymen who were largely sympathetic to ending segregation but wanted King and others to pursue it gradually through the courts, not public demonstrations, which they said were “unwise and untimely” and “led in part by outsiders” like King. An Atlantic reader offers context for those eight men:

The lives of the eight clergymen were deeply influenced by the times and the Letter itself. (Though none of those eight ever actually received the Letter, and King did not know any of them at the time of writing.) Their stories add perspective and depth to the discussion of the Letter.

My father was one of the eight clergymen. A piece of our story, as well as the recollections of others in Birmingham in 1963, are on this website. Take a look.

It may be surprising to many to learn that some of those clergymen took a public stand against segregation, and they and their families became targets for violent segregationists as well as integrationists who thought they were moving too slowly. Jonathan Bass’ fine book, Blessed are the Peacemakers, presents the stories and research on who actually wrote and contributed to the Letter. It’s worth reading.

Worth watching is the above CSPAN segment featuring Bass, a history professor at Birmingham’s Samford University who provides a lot of rich detail to April 1963.