Study Guide

Letter from Birmingham Jail Historical Context

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

Historical Context

Okay. First a bunch of Europeans settled in America, where the European slave trade eventually found a huge new market. Then there was slavery in the U.S. for a long time. Then there was the abolitionist movement in the North, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Reconstruction.

Got it?

The history of Blacks in American history goes all the way back to the establishment of the nation. It can also be super depressing when you get into the details, which isn't all that helpful when you have to write a ten-page essay on Frederick Douglass before you go to bed.

Anyway, what's really important to know in order to understand the context of the Civil Rights Movement is the history of segregation. After the Civil War ended, the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution made slavery illegal. For about a decade, federal troops occupied the South, and the federal government was heavily involved in the rebuilding—"reconstruction"—of those states.

But in 1877, newly elected President Hayes withdrew the federal troops, and the Southern states were left to their own devices. This allowed white supremacists to develop a network of local laws and ordinances that enforced segregation and suppressed black voting rights. African Americans were routinely attacked, humiliated, murdered, and denied basic human rights, with the perps never worrying about being punished. Racial hatred flourished. By the time Dr. King was born in 1929, this system of oppression had been thriving for fifty years. To put that in perspective, it's been about fifty years since the Birmingham campaign of 1963.

Which, conveniently enough, brings us to "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

Even though Dr. King had risen to a leadership position in the Civil Rights Movement during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, and had been organizing and advocating for desegregation across the country for a decade, the Birmingham campaign of 1963 marked a turning point. Because the protests were nationally televised and the violence of the police was seen in living rooms across the country, Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor lost his job, Jim Crow laws were weakened, and Dr. King and the SCLC became even better known.

Because they won.

MLK's arrest in Birmingham (number 13 out of 30; a pretty good lifetime score in the Civil Rights Movement) and writing of "Letter from Birmingham Jail" motivated more Black Americans to stand up for their rights and made many whites aware of the actual conditions in segregated communities for the first time. Shortly after, President Kennedy announced his support for a Civil Rights Bill.

It was only a few months later that Dr. King helped organize the March on Washington and gave his outrageously famous "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, all of which created the consensus that passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When someone gives a speech that good, it's hard to ignore them. Go ahead, YouTube his speech and see if you don't get a little worked up about racial justice and universal love.

We'll wait.

So, "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was written at a crucial moment. There were a lot of forces working against desegregation that needed to be refuted and a lot of complacent moderates who needed to be prodded into action. The letter is sprinkled with some of the most subtle and eloquent burns in literary history, which show how deeply intelligent and righteously furious Dr. King was in his lifetime struggle against racism (See: "I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities" [29].)

In a way, "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was the literary equivalent of a mic drop at the end of the Birmingham campaign.

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