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 The U.S. Civil Rights Movement  
Martin Luther King sits in a jail cell

Martin Luther King Jr. looks through the bars of a Burmingham, Alabama, cell in April 1963.

In spring 1963, civil rights leaders campaigned for desegregation in Birmingham. They hoped to focus attention on the harsh treatment of peaceful protesters by city officials.

While in Birmingham, King was jailed for holding marches without a permit. While imprisoned, King responded to a published letter from moderate white preachers criticizing the campaign with the famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail.

Wyatt Walker, King’s chief of staff, typed King’s letter after it was smuggled out. “I thought it was important; it read like a letter from the Apostle Paul in the New Testament,” he said from a Virginia retirement home. The letter “spoke to me,” Walker said. “The argument is so clear and incisive.”

The letter was published by the Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia with the title Tears of Love. “I said, ‘no, it should be called Letter From a Birmingham Jail,’” Walker said, because like many epistles, it addresses a particular group, from a particular place. (National Archives)