50th Anniversary of Dr. ML King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail (plus National Card and Letter Writing Month)

APRIL to MAY 12, 2013: The annual campaign called “National Card and Letter Writing Month” runs through Mother’s Day—or, at least, this celebration is supposed to cover that period and focus on Moms. This year, however, the mid-April emphasis on letter writing has taken a dramatic turn with the April 16 milestone in American civil rights: the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

What is ‘National Card and Letter Writing Month?
A big-budget campaign kicked this idea into high gear for the 2008 release of the HBO mini-series John Adams. (It’s still a great choice on DVD.) The producers partnered with the US Postal Service and encouraged school children to put ink on paper. The campaign did, indeed, inspire countless letters. It’s “countless” today because the Postal Service and HBO have removed materials about the campaign from the Internet. Nevertheless, the annual “month” continues to show up on many calendars of cultural events—and, hey, it’s still a terrific idea, don’t you think? Get out a pen and paper now—or make a greeting card—and send Mom an early Mother’s Day greeting.


If you’re scratching your head about this particular “month,” you may be recalling other festivals of letter writing that have spanned the past century. Among the many other independently proclaimed holidays is a National Letter Writing Day. There also is a National Letter Writing Week. Each indie effort, supported by various groups, still has supporters. These other festivals span the calendar—one starts each year in January, after the Christmas card flood has ebbed; another comes in autumn.

But in 2013, as in 2008, there is fresh historical fuel for April letters …


TUESDAY, APRIL 16, 2013: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “letter” was more of a jigsaw puzzle that now has many godfathers claiming its birth. Also, the letter should be remembered not as an impulsive note—but as a strategic step planned in advance like many of the great milestones in the civil rights movement. Today, King’s letter is dated to April 16, 1963, although the letter was completed over a longer period than that one day. The long manifesto was a rebuke of eight religious leaders who had just (on April 12) made a public appeal for an end to confrontational demonstrations. The clergymen included Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist leaders, plus a rabbi. They called for the campaign to move from the streets to the courts. King’s famous letter told the nation why that plea was naive.


Earlier this year, Americans were reminded of the letter’s origin, when poet and longtime New York Times editor Harry Shapiro died. As editor of The New York Times Magazine in the early 1960s, Shapiro telephoned the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and asked that King use a future time in jail to write a letter to the nation. This was a challenge for King, because Southern jails were notoriously inhospitable places. Nevertheless, King used his jailing in the spring of 1963 to begin jotting passages for his most famous letter—on torn-off pieces of old newspapers. These fragments were passed to his lawyers and then were assembled at SCLC headquarters and conveyed to Shapiro. Unfortunately for his career as an editor, Shapiro’s most historic acquisition was deemed unacceptable for publication by his bosses.

Perhaps understandably after half a century, everyone involved in the release of King’s letter recalls the publication through a personal lens. The Shapiro obituary in the New York Times mentions the Christian Century, among other publications that finally spread King’s letter coast to coast. Meanwhile, the Christian Century’s own in-depth history of the letter doesn’t mention Shapiro and, instead, focuses on the Christian Century’s own role.

The Christian Century history says, in part: “The Century had itself counseled moderation in the late 1950s, although not without an acute awareness that ‘to plead for time for white Americans’ education and conversion is at the same time to ask Negro Americans for more patience with the insufferable, more making-do with the present possibilities of action. It is to risk misinterpretation to knuckling under to white bitter-enders.’ By 1963, the magazine had run out of patience. ‘Why not now?’ the editors asked in March on the eve of the Birmingham demonstrations. … The Century reported and commented fully on racial politics in Birmingham and elsewhere, publishing more articles on race relations in 1963 than on any other subject.

And the impact of King’s letter? It ignited both renewed passion among civil rights veterans—and fresh allegiance from other men and women who had been on the sidelines of the struggle until King’s eloquent letter urged them to take action. The University of Pennsylvania is one of many colleges that offers a complete online text of King’s famous letter.

Months after publishing the letter, the Christian Century reported that “it had received over 50 responses to the letter from readers, all of them favorable. ‘In all my years of reading your periodical,’ one declared, ‘I have never been more moved by a single issue. What a shaking experience! If the canon of Holy Scriptures were not closed, I would nominate Martin Luther King’s statement either as a continuation of the Acts of the Apostles or as an addition to the Epistles in the best tradition of the Pauline prison letters.’


BIRMINGHAM GATHERING OF CHRISTIAN CHURCHES TOGETHER: The nationwide ecumenical organization called Christian Churches Together is convening a two-day conference in Birmingham to remember King’s letter and to sign a 2013 response on April 15, encouraging church leaders to keep King’s message alive in today’s struggles for justice. Much of this event is closed to the public, but participants later plan to publish their new joint letter.

A DETROIT READING OF KING’S LETTER FROM THE BIRMINGHAM JAIL: In this major Northern city where King also marched in the civil rights era, the 50th anniversary of the letter will be marked by readings from King’s letter every half hour from 10:30 a.m. through 5:30 p.m. The event is scheduled at the Hubbard Branch of the Detroit Public Library. This event is open to the public.


A major new memoir debuts in early 2013 called, Love & Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in LettersThis inspiring collection of actual mail between two young women is fresh evidence of the power of letters to shape our lives and deepen our spiritual insights.
Coming on Monday April 15: ReadTheSpirit will publish an in-depth interview with Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith, the two women who penned the letters found in Love & Salt.

In their book, the two women quote another great American writer, Emily Dickinson: “A letter always seemed to me like immortality.”

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, values and cross-cultural diversity.)


Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Duncan Newcomer says

    The letter by King became the topic of a sermon by my father–at his big Presbyterian church in Bloomfield, New Jersey. He was a moderate liberal, and a reader of Christian Century. He passionately proclaimed the letter as in the tradition of Paul. I will never forget that. I think it mainstreamed the struggle. It brought me in, at 20 years of age.

Tell Us What You Think

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *