From its first publication in 1963, Letter From Birmingham Jail had a seismic impact. Initially written on scraps of toilet paper and scratch paper during his time in jail, King’s letter was later typed by young assistants (one of whom, in struggling to decipher his handwriting, remarked, “Dr. King can speak but he sure can’t write”), and was soon published. From there, it quickly spread around the country as a manifesto articulating the urgency in redressing injustice, the interconnectedness of citizens, the necessity of discernment in responding rightly to unjust laws, and the demands of courage born of faith.
Not only did King’s letter help galvanize the civil rights movement, and upend the widespread complacency of the time towards segregation, it remains a timeless classic, with lessons equally applicable today in discerning and contributing to justice and compassion in civic life.
In many ways, Dr. King’s letter is potent illustration of the way in which an immersion in the great ideas of civilization is essential to discerning rightly and acting wisely and courageously in uncertain times.
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