Fifty years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Ala., and began writing what would become one of the most significant letters in the Civil Rights Movement.
On Tuesday, people from across the world read the letter, which addressed the issue of segregation, aloud on its 50th anniversary. The event was sponsored by the Birmingham Public Library.
Here in the Valley, community members read the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” at the Mahoning County Courthouse on Tuesday afternoon.
It was Good Friday on April 10, 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. was thrown behind bars after violating a court order that stated he could not march or demonstrate against segregation and other injustices taking place in Birmingham, Ala. While in jail, he read a letter in the newspaper written by eight religious leaders who criticized him for disobeying the order by continuing the demonstrations.
“They said to him ‘Be patient, take things through the court to negotiate’,” said Penny Wells, director of Sojourn to the Past.
King felt he needed to respond to the clergymen, explaining that they had been patient and they were working through the courts, but it was time to take action. That’s when he began writing what has now become the historic “Letter From the Birmingham Jail.”
“He wrote this letter on pieces of newspaper and smuggled it out with his lawyer,” Wells said. ” And he’s fussing with them for being complacent and not seeing the wrongs that are happening in the city of Birmingham.”
The pieces were later put together and published in newspapers and magazines throughout Birmingham. On Tuesday, students, clergy and local leaders all took turns reading the 14-page letter aloud.
All the participants were moved in different ways.
“His courage, not being afraid to stand up for what is right although he knew his life was on the line,” said Shameka Walker, a student at Youngstown Early College.
“What would really make me excited is if the letters from the paper became embedded and imprinted on our hearts and we start to live out those virtues,” said the Rev. Lewis Macklin of Holy Trinity Missionary Baptist Church.