A Reading of the Letter From Birmingham Jail: A Review

New film will bring new audience to MLK's classic text on nonviolent resistance

Posted Mar 11, 2014

A talented orator is not unlike a talented singer: In the right hands (or vocal cords), the words become more a spiritual experience than a mere communication tool. Martin Luther King, Jr. was that kind of orator. You can even feel it through a grainy, black and white small screen.

MLK's cell in Birmingham

Recreation of M.L. King's cell in Birmingham

King's Letter From Birmingham Jail was a letter, not a speech. As its name implies, the letter was written by King while he was incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama, after being arrested with Ralph Albernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, and others for intentionally disobeying Circuit Judge Jenkins's injunction against parading, demonstrating, boycotting, and picketing. The Letter was a response to A Call For Unity, a statement issued by eight local, white clergymen who denounced the nonviolent protests.

Though it is not as universally known as the "I Have a Dream" speech delivered just a few months later, Letter From a Birmingham Jail, which King started to write on the margins of the newspaper carrying the clergymen's statement, is the source of many of the words that King is best known for. It is not the case, therefore, that Letter From Birmingham Jail has been either underappreciated or forgotten. Yet, because it was a letter and not a speech, its contents are not as easily accessible or as widely recognized as "I Have a Dream", despite being one of the primary texts of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.

To make the text more accessible, The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity just released a new film titled "A Reading From The Letter from Birmingham Jail", directed by Jamaal Bell. You can watch the trailer below:

As the title suggests, the film largely consists of the letter being read out loud, though there are also photographs and other images that break-up the many talking heads. Ideally, it would, of course, be King himself who appears on screen, but such footage is, to my knowledge, nonexistent. Instead, we have to settle for a large cast of prominent though not easily recognizable individuals, including several U.S. Senators. The transitions from one reader to another could potentially create a disjointed soundtrack, but the film makes the transitions seamlessly and the effect somehow underscores that King's words are no longer just his but now belong to everyone who followed in his footsteps.

The text of the letter is remarkably timeless. I have read multiple excerpts previously but never the entire product in one sitting. Watching the film, I was moved by King's honesty and generosity, as well as by his ability to espouse unwavering commitment for justice without engaging in the dehumanization of either those who have directed supported oppression or those who willfully remained silent so that the oppression could continue.

I also found myself marveling at how the past 50 years have added so little to our understanding of either nonviolent resistance or of the pursuit of justice more broadly. There is but a single line with which I do not wholeheartedly agree. It is at the 31:42 mark when King says "Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber." When King wrote these words in 1963, the contemporary restorative justice movement had not yet been born. Having been influenced by this movement, I would say instead that "society must protect the robbed and restore the robber." By this, I mean of course that we must create conditions for every person and every person's property to remain unharmed but that, when harm happens, we need to create actions that repair the harm and restore the person who did the harm to be a productive and respected member of the community.

In any case, this is a post of appreciation. It is foremost an appreciation for King's powerful words and unflinching humanity, but it is appreciation as well for the Kirwan Institute and everyone involved in this project. I feel grateful for having had the opportunity to watch it, learn from it, and otherwise be impacted by King's words, as so many have before me and as I hope many more will after. Indeed, it is not just the prominent readers who have inherited King's words. It is all of us.


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