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A Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Written words matter, and – when penned by the right person, at the right time, and to the right audience – have the power to impact and ultimately change the course of history. One of the most important letters in American history was written by Martin Luther King Jr. from a jail in Birmingham, Alabama. The words he wrote left a strong impression on those who read them, helped to push his agenda to a broader audience and still influence readers today.

In April of 1963, King was imprisoned for leading a demonstration that brought attention to the injustice and racism suffered by African Americans in Birmingham. While in prison, a local newspaper published an open letter to King written by eight local Christian and Jewish leaders in which they criticized King and his approach in their city. King began to write his response on the edges of the newspaper before writing on scraps of paper given to him by his lawyers. When finished, he put together a 7,000-word defense of his plans and the goal of his organization.

Throughout the letter, King criticized and challenged those he felt were not doing their part in the fight against injustice, inspired his audience with stories and quoted Scripture, theologians, philosophers, and politicians to make his argument stronger. Famous lines such as “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and the legal phrase “justice too long delayed is justice denied” were used to convince the doubters of his approach. He wrote a compelling argument for disobeying unjust laws by citing Nazi Germany and how it was illegal to help the Jews under the Hitler regime.

The letter was eventually published in a number of newspapers and magazines and helped to shine a light on the need for reform. Many people credit King’s letter as being a major motivating factor in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and helping to turn the tide of public opinion in his favor. We would encourage you to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year by taking the time to read the entire Letter. It is a great reminder of the struggles our country faced in the 1960’s and is a challenge to all to defend the rights of the powerless and work on behalf of those without a voice. His words are still true today.

Although it is unlikely any of us will ever write something as powerful and historic as the Letter from Birmingham Jail, words can make a difference. Written at the right time, to the right people, they can shape and change thoughts and actions. Don’t underestimate the impact your words can have on others.

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