1963 April 12

Martin Luther King Arrested in Birmingham Demonstration: Writes Famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”


The Rev. Martin Luther King was arrested on this day for violating Alabama’s law against mass public demonstrations. The demonstrations were part of King’s major civil rights effort in Birmingham, becoming world famous because of photographs of Birmingham police using fire hoses and police dogs against demonstrators. The arrest on this day is famous because, while in jail, King wrote a now-famous letter to white Birmingham clergymen, referred to as the “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” dated April 16, 1963. The letter is one of the most famous documents from the Civil Rights Movement.

The Birmingham demonstrations pushed President John F. Kennedy to deliver a nationally televised speech on civil rights on the night of June 11, 1963, and to propose a federal civil rights bill. The bill, much amended, became the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law on July 2, 1964.

The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover conducted a years-long effort to destroy his career as a civil rights leader. On December 23, 1963 it decided on a plan to “neutralize” him as a leader. Hoover had persuaded Attorney General Robert Kennedy to authorize wiretaps on King on October 10, 1963, and on January 5, 1964 the FBI placed the first unauthorized “bug” (listening device) in a hotel room where King was staying. And most notoriously, on November 21, 1964, the FBI sent an anonymous letter and tape recording to both Kind and his wife with recordings purporting to show King engaged in extra-marital sexual affairs.

Read about the Birmingham struggle: Diane McWhorter, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (2001)

Read the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

Learn more; original documents from the Birmingham struggle: http://www.crmvet.org/docs/bhamdocs.htm

Read the monumental Three-Volume biography of Dr. King by Taylor Branch: Parting the Waters (1988); Pillar of Fire (1998); At Canaan’s Edge (2006)

Read: Jonathan Bass, Blessed are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (2001)

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