On the afternoon of April 12, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was alone. Sequestered away in a cramped and dimly lit cell in the Birmingham Jail, he sat with elbows resting on knees, chin resting on fingers, and the weight of the world resting on his brow.
A jangle of keys and a shuffle of boots marked the passing of a jailer, and a heavy sheaf of newsprint landed at King’s feet. In bold, black print, the headline read, “A Call for Unity.” King slowly picked up the paper and began to read, his eyes widening and back stiffening with every word. While King sat in jail, eight white, moderate clergymen had bound together and penned an open letter to the black population of Birmingham, urging them to beware the destructive influence of an “outsider,” whose efforts were not only “unwise and untimely” but were sure to “incite hatred and violence.” With the indulgent tone of patient parents, they urged forbearance and temperance, promising that the battle for civil rights was better waged in the courtroom than in the streets of Birmingham. It was cool, calm, and polite, and, for Martin Luther King, Jr., it was absolutely incendiary.
Great men are often defined not so much by their successes as by their perseverance in the face of failure, and for Martin Luther King, Jr., things were no different. Though he had ridden high on a wave of national praise for his leadership during the 1956 bussing boycott in Montgomery, his most recent endeavor—an attempt to carry that success into the stubbornly segregated streets of Albany, Georgia—had met with fantastic failure. Albany countered King’s non-violent resistance with sure-footed, passive control; in essence, the city was willing to wait the protests out. Without action there could be no reaction, and as a result, King’s movement wobbled, faltered, and stalled.
It was in the light of this fading momentum that King was invited to Birmingham, a city known for its obstinate refusal to enforce federal race laws. Black Americans were kept in check by a combination of fear and violence—the extremity of which was reflected in the fact that though they made up 40% of the city’s population, they represented only 12% of its registered voters. The city’s segregationist ideologies were consistently enforced by the strong-arm law of public safety officer Eugene “Bull” Connor, famed for allowing his local chapter of the KKK fifteen uninterrupted minutes alone with a busload of Freedom Riders before dispatching officers to the scene. Where the law stopped, brutal possies of townspeople took up, dolling out beatings, bombings, cross-burnings, and lynchings to any who dared challenge the city’s strict racial caste system.
Into this Wild West of vigilante Jim Crow Law strode Martin Luther King, who, along with local leaders, set about designing a plan that would elicit a reaction from the people of Birmingham and garner the attention of the nation. Easter—the second busiest shopping season of the year—was swiftly approaching, and King planned to disrupt the fiscal flow with a series of sit-ins and protests, culminating in a march on Good Friday. At first, the campaign appeared doomed to follow in the disappointing footsteps of Albany; despite his reputation to the contrary, Bull Connor remained maddeningly civil, ordering his men to arrest protestors without violence or fanfare. As the city’s jail cells began to fill with protestors and its shops empty of customers, however, the commissioner’s patience began to wear thin. At 1:15 the morning before the Good Friday March, King was hand delivered an injunction that strictly forbade parading, boycotting, demonstrating, trespassing, picketing, kneel-ins, wade-ins, and encouraging or inciting any of the above acts. In essence, he was served injunction against non-violent resistance.
King was faced with an impasse. His organization was running dangerously low on bail funds, and the only way to replenish the coffers was for King to resume his national speaking tour. If he chose to march, he would surely be arrested and of no use to the cause, but if he chose not to march, he would undermine his already floundering legitimacy within the movement. Further complicating the issue, King had never so blatantly broken the law (wasn’t that precisely what he condemned Birmingham for?), and in doing so, he would be putting himself behind closed doors with one of the most infamously racist and violent police forces in the South. In addition, King faced criticism from media in the North and South alike; Time, Newsweek, and The Washington Post had all clucked their tongues after his struggle in Albany and had set their leveled gaze on what appeared to a potential repeat in Birmingham. The world was watching, his movement was faltering, and all that he had worked for was precariously resting on the razor-edge of his choice.
The next morning found King steel-eyed and solemn faced. As the sun rose on Good Friday, he stepped out of Sixth Avenue Baptist Church and almost immediately into Bull Connor’s waiting police wagon. Inside the Birmingham Jail, King was utterly isolated, allowed no phone call, no bail, and no contact with the outside world. He sat alone with his thoughts, until they were interrupted by the audible plop of a newspaper landing beside his cot, “A Call for Unity” emblazoned across the front.
The rest, as they say, is history. King’s response is a tidal wave of fierce eloquence, a culmination of generations of oppression, anger, fear, and frustration. Alternating between arching swells of anger and icy flats of sharp-edged civility, King’s epistle takes to task not only those who openly sought to keep black Americans down, but the moderates who sanctioned it through silence: whites, blacks, and most of all, the church. From his cell, he invoked a pantheon of politicians, philosophers, and saints, using the parallels between their struggles and his own to undermine every argument put forth in “A Call for Unity.” With prophetic clarity, he predicted not only the future success of the movement, but the weight it would carry in history: “One day the South will recognize its real heroes,” he wrote. Today, he rests among them.