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News | Jan. 18, 2018

HQC employees honor King’s memory with focus on ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail’

By Beth Reece

McNamara Headquarters Complex employees honored the memory and work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Jan. 17 with a video recitation of one of his most prominent writings, the letter he wrote from a jail cell after being arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, April 12, 1963, on charges of violating laws against mass public demonstrations.

Though he lived in Atlanta, Georgia, King was in the Alabama city for the Birmingham campaign, a nonviolent movement organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to highlight injustices against African Americans and end segregation. Local clergymen claimed King was an outsider who wanted to cause trouble, but he wrote, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

King described Birmingham as the most segregated city in the United States. “Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation,” he wrote.

Though local clergymen questioned the timing of those who rebuked racism through boycotts and other peaceful demonstrations, King said freedom is never voluntarily given. “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never,’” he continued. The rest of King’s letter defends nonviolent resistance to racial issues and stresses that everyone has a moral responsibility for ending oppression.

Though most people know King for his “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered before 250,000 supporters during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom Aug. 28, 1963, his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” written four months earlier, has as much reach and significance, said DLA Director Army Lt. Gen. Darrell Williams. And it continues to speak to the conscience of our nation, he added.

The letter solidified support by framing the fight against injustice in a religious context and by emphasizing King’s and his allies’ inclusive, nonviolent approach, versus the adversarial one espoused by some other leaders.  In that way, King’s letter and the peaceful protest in Washington both contributed to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

King became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, before he was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed the third Monday of January. The federal holiday was established in 1983, and in 1994 Congress designated it a national day of service to inspire volunteerism and community involvement.

The video of the letter recitation is available online. The full text of the letter can be read here.