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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

LETTER from BIRMINGHAM JAIL (audiobook) by Martin Luther King, Jr.

         A Brilliant Essay

Published by Mission Audio in April of 2013.
Originally published in 1963 in various newspapers and magazines
Read by Dion Graham
Duration: 51 minutes

This letter was written in response to a group of African American preachers who were calling for an end to the nonviolent resistance to the racist order in Birmingham, Alabama. This included sit-ins, marches and violating a court order to end all such demonstrations. King was arrested for violating this order (yes, he was arrested for speaking his mind and being involved in a peaceful assembly - a double violation of his First Amendment rights) and kept is squalid conditions in the overcrowded Birmingham jail.

Recreation of the Birmingham Jail cell where this letter was
written at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis,
Tennessee. Photo by Adam Jones, Ph.D.
Letter from Birmingham Jail was written, at first, on scrap bits of paper and smuggled out by way of his lawyers and re-assembled by his supporters on the outside. The last parts were written on a note pad. The fact that it was written in such a herky-jerky fashion and yet is so cohesive and consistent throughout is simply amazing to me considering how much I go back and revise as I write and discard entire paragraphs as I go along. 

The document itself is more than just a civil rights letter. It is one of those basic expressions of what it is to be an American and why it is so important to guard those rights. As I listened, I was struck by the irony that his arguments were so much like those of the Founding Fathers. In fact, they work so well because King was intentionally using their arguments as his arguments. He was intentionally using the language of those that would oppose his demands for equal rights against them. The letter abounds with Biblical references, references to the Ancient Greeks, the Founders and even to his namesake, Martin Luther. It uses the philosophical underpinnings of Western Culture to demand that Western Culture live up to its own ideals. 

And, it is brilliant.

King's mugshot from his arrest.
I am a history teacher and I would feel completely comfortable placing this document right next to Jefferson's Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Payne's Common Sense and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address in a list of required readings for an American history class. 

Although this was written as a letter, it reads remarkably well as a speech. Dion Graham's performance is excellent. Of course, it helps when your source material is so good. But, do not take this at a swipe at Graham's abilities. He did not choose to mimic King. Instead, he read it in his own voice and he nailed all of the points perfectly. I do not think anyone could read it any better.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. 

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Letter from Birmingham Jail

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