In recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Samford University’s Davis Library has displayed one of the most influential pieces of text from the civil rights movement, an original copy of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” dated April 16, 1963.
King’s letter, which powerfully stated a case for racial equality and the immediate need for social justice, still has an impact on history. On April 12, 1963, King defied a court injunction and marched through the streets of Birmingham. King and a small group of protestors were arrested and transported to the Birmingham jail where 40 years earlier, a prisoner had penned a mournful folk ballad about the place that included the line "write me a letter; save it for mail; send it in care of Birmingham jail."
Early in his eight-day imprisonment, King read a white clergymen’s statement criticizing the timing of the protests and began composing a response. He gave bits and pieces of the letter to his lawyers to take back to movement headquarters, where the Reverend Wyatt Walker began compiling and editing the literary jigsaw puzzle. The 21-page, typed, double-spaced essay appears as though it is a personal correspondence, addressed to the eight white ministers. It opens with a salutation reading "My dear fellow clergymen" and concludes with "Yours for the cause of peace and brotherhood." The document, however, was never sent to the eight ministers and instead was used by the movement for public relations purposes as a response to broader criticisms from around the country. In the aftermath of the Birmingham campaign, the "Letter" became part of American folklore. It now appears in hundreds of anthologies and is studied in secondary schools and colleges all over the world.
As one of the original typed carbon copies, this significant artifact is one of the prized possessions of the library’s Special Collection. Donated to the university by George Bagley, the executive secretary of the Alabama Baptist Convention at the time of its publishing, the copy is used frequently by Samford students, and those outside of the university.
Jennifer Taylor, assistant librarian and Special Collection chair said, “It’s a very great honor to have these early pieces from Dr. Martin Luther King as he was working on that letter, it’s an honor for us to have them here at Samford. And they get used very often by our students and by other museums and collections around the world. We’re very grateful to have them and make them available.”
A second copy of the letter in the library’s collection was donated by Professor Jonathan Bass, who obtained it from Bishop Joseph Durick, one of the eight clergymen addressed in the letter. Bass, an expert in civil rights history, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his book Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Bass said, “To have something in writing like this is extremely important. Dr. King spends a lot of time justifying why he’s in Birmingham, the timing of the movement, which was so criticized, justifying his tactics, justifying why he’s breaking laws, and at the same time, he admonishes white moderates and white ministers for standing on the sidelines and doing very little.”
It’s especially important for the Samford community, particularly its students, to have this artifact nearby not only as an educational resource, but as a reminder of the history that happened in our city which affected the world.
Denise Gregory, associate provost for student success and diversity and inclusion said, “For our students it’s such a great reminder of them just to see the work. It also gives them a tangible piece of material to look at to give them a visual display of the great work that he’s done. We’re excited to share this display with our students, to remind them of the great work Dr. Martin Luther King did, and the importance of civility with one another.”
Bass noted that there is no original, first draft copy of the letter, including King’s original notes. “For Special Collection to have two typed carbon copies of the letter in their collection is a real goldmine,” he said. The letter was mass produced locally on mimeograph machines and through typed and retyped carbon copies.
The letter is on display in the Davis library through the end of February 2022 but is available in Special Collection as a resource for faculty, staff, students and the community, at any time. Special Collection is open to the public and all researchers are welcome to use the materials during its hours of operation.