On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. penned his epic “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” He had been arrested on the Good Friday before, while taking part in a peaceful civil-rights protest. King sent a handwritten draft to The Atlantic, and it was published for the first time in the magazine—then called The Atlantic Monthly—in August of that year. In the letter, he wrote in part:
There are some instances when a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I was arrested Friday on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong with an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade, but when the ordinance is used to preserve segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest, then it becomes unjust.
Of course Jim and I had the letter on our minds when we visited Birmingham, Alabama, this fall. We thought about The Atlantic connection, but we also had another connection there: Jim had gotten his first job as a journalist in Montgomery, Alabama, reporting for the Southern Courier and frequently visiting Birmingham in the summer of 1968.
There have been a few times during our travels across the country for the American Futures project over the last three years when we have come face to face with references to powerful pieces that we knew resided in the bulky, delicately-aging bound volumes of The Atlantic, which sit in the magazine’s office in the Watergate building today.
One time was when we sought and found the now-abandoned homestead of Caroline Henderson, a young Mount Holyoke graduate who followed her dream to the Oklahoma panhandle in 1907 to farm. She did farm for 28 years, and but for the timing, Henderson would probably have continued to thrive. She survived the drought of the 1930s, although her greatest legacy was not a farm, but a series of evocative letters published in the magazine chronicling her ordeals called “Letters from the Dust Bowl.”