We all remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on that August day in 1963, King spoke eloquently and powerfully about a better future for America. Less known, however, is that a few months before this speech, King sat in a prison cell in Birmingham, Alabama, patiently writing a letter on scraps of newspapers smuggled to him by his lawyers. If the speech in Washington exemplifies King the orator and visionary, his letter from a Birmingham jail reveals King the political strategist, a crucial side of the civil rights icon that we often overlook.
King was all too familiar with the challenges posed by outspoken segregationists and political leaders who opposed his vision of racial equality. But as he describes in his letter, the bigger problem lay with the large swath of white Americans who sat on the sidelines idly watching the contest unfold. King knew better than anyone else that in order to effect lasting political change at the national level, he needed to persuade this group of moderates to join his side and get them to care about injustices that they would otherwise prefer to ignore.
As a masterclass in political persuasion, King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is one of the greatest documents in American history. Follow Threadable Guide, Kevin Kruse, as he places King’s letter in historical context and shows why it remains so important to us today.