Letter from a Birmingham Jail: The Cause
Wesley Parker, January 16, 2013
Martin Luther King was not only the face of the civil rights movement, but a symbol of leadership for people around the world fighting for justice and equality. While he is most known for his “I Have a Dream” speech it was his “Letter from A Birmingham Jail” that brought him into the spotlight and brought attention to the peril of African Americans. He was arrested for leading a demonstration for civil liberties and criticized by local church leaders for causing trouble in an already volatile city. With his back against a wall, he was forced to step into the forefront of the civil rights movement. While the letter became known as a masterpiece, it was the launch of “Project C” in the city of Birmingham that would shape the events after.
The town of Birmingham, Alabama was the most volatile city during the civil rights era. Black residents fought against unjust laws to gain equality, encountering stiff resistance from white political leaders. African American citizens’ cries for equality had fallen on deaf ears as the government ignored the calls for civil rights reform. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization led by Martin Luther King, was at the forefront of the civil rights movement. However, the organization’s efforts at that point had failed to bring attention to their fight against injustice. Early in 1963 the SCLC were coming off a campaign in Albany, Georgia, in which they tried to force the city into integrating public facilities. This campaign was seen as a failure as the city fought to keep their laws the same and handed King a humbling defeat. It was the struggle in Georgia that would help shape Project C. King wrote in his autobiography “When we planned our strategy for Birmingham months later, we spent many hours assessing Albany and trying to learn from its errors. Our appraisals not only helped to make our subsequent tactics more effective, but revealed that Albany was far from an unqualified failure.”
Though the Albany movement increased his profile, King was leading a faltering movement. The SCLC had failed to attract any media attention and most around the country were unaware to the plight of blacks in the South. Wyatt Tee Walker, who at the time was the executive director of the SCLC, devised a plan that would become Project C. The C stood for confrontation but in name alone because they were aware of city commissioner Bull Connor’s tendency to meet demonstrations with violence. Wyatt explained his plan saying “My theory was that if we mounted a strong nonviolent movement, the opposition would surely do something to attract the media, and in turn induce national sympathy and attention to the everyday segregated circumstance of a person living in the Deep South” (Bass 96). Wyatt timed the walk from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to the downtown area as well as secondary targets in case the police blocked their path toward stores and libraries. The goal of the campaign was to fill the jails with demonstrators which would force the city to continue negotiating. On April 10, 1963, protests began in Birmingham as demonstrators staged sit-ins and protests throughout downtown Birmingham which led to a violent backlash from the authorities. These protests went on for a month as they were initially only thrown in jail. As the protests dragged on, the backlash from authorities became more aggressive. Protesters were hosed down and attacked by police dogs before being thrown in jail. Bull Connor was able to secure an injunction which barred all protests and raised the bail of those jailed substantially. The SCLC lacked the funds to cover the cost of bailing out the demonstrators so they made the decision to ignore the injunction and continue protests. On Good Friday, Dr. King and more than fifty protesters were arrested. While in custody King decided not to pursue bail so as to bring attention to the movement. White clergymen admonished King for causing trouble and argued that the battle for justice should be fought in the courts and not the streets.
While imprisoned King began writing his response to the criticism. Over two weeks King wrote what would become the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The Letter from a Birmingham Jail not only laid out the goals of the civil rights movement, but showed the nation that they were resilient enough to fight until the end. However, it was the brilliantly orchestrated Project C campaign that became the blueprint for people around the world who were fighting against injustice. Wyatt’s goal of baiting the authorities into brutality tactics that would attract the attention of the national media worked flawlessly as images of people being hosed made their way across the country. Historian Glenn Askew wrote that the campaign “led to an awakening to the evils of segregation and a need for reforms in the region” (Garrow 94). This campaign was also instrumental in Washington as the White House would begin legislation that would pass as the Civil Rights Bill a year later. Though Martin Luther King would be praised as a hero in the aftermath of the Birmingham campaign, it was the execution of the campaign and the resiliency of the residents of Birmingham that helped inspire change.