Remembering that Fiery Letter Written in a Birmingham Jail


“In the words of Faulkner, ‘the past is never dead, it is not even past.’ This past, moreover, reaching all the way back into the origin, does not pull back but presses forward, and it is, contrary to what one would expect, the future which drives us


back into the past…”—Hannah Arendt, American philosopher and political theorist.


We live in a time when the U.S. government reports – without irony or shame – that it has separated more than 2,000 children from their parents at our nation’s borders.



The adults in these divided families face criminal prosecution for unlawfully crossing the border, and their children have been shuttled off into “zero tolerance” detention shelters. There, in makeshift, hurricane-fenced cages, bottles of water and bags of chips provide dinner. Aluminum foil thermal blankets provide warmth.



Federal District Judge Dana Sabraw ruled in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which sued the government over these family separations at the border, prompting a deadline for reuniting families that was recently missed.



If it were ever true that a current moment urgently drives us back into the past, certainly it is now.



Fifty-five years ago, The Christian Century and three other secular bulletins and journals, published the now iconic Letter From a Birmingham Jail, written by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The June 1963 publications marked the first time Dr. King’s letter had been printed in its entirety following his incarceration that previous April.


The letter presented a blistering response to accommodationist arguments presented by an ecumenical group of eight, Birmingham clergymen.


His retort to criticism that “outsiders” had no place in town was simple: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” While the letter itself did not change the systemic oppression in Birmingham, with the publication in The Century, The Negro History Bulletin, the New Leader and Liberation, the civil rights leader’s arguments pressed urgently into the national psyche.



Dr. King’s powerful words of social and political change present a powerful challenge to us even today. His searing words still resonate profoundly: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We commemorate those who boldly stood alongside Dr. King in the fight for justice by linking to the June 12, 1963 Century edition.



We commissioned a spoken word reflection called “My Feets” by Chuk Obasi, the Artist-in-Residence here at Intersections International and you may watch that video here. We also interviewed Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and his video can be seen here. Both can be viewed in the video gallery.



Here is the link to Dr. King's entire letter from a Birmingham Jail: