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Letter from Birmingham Jail

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Letter from Birmingham Jail

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the writing of one of the most important documents of the civil rights movement. Legacy.com executive producer – and Birmingham, Alabama native – Jessica Campbell looks back at a tumultuous time in her hometown's history and her grandfather's connection to it.

Fifty years ago today, one of the most important letters in American history was written. From his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. began penning his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.

“…I am in Birmingham because Injustice is here. … I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. lead a column of African American demonstrators as they attempt to march on Birmingham City Hall, April 12, 1963. Police intercepted the group short of their goal.

King wrote the open letter as a response to eight local clergymen who on the day of King's arrest – for his participation in a nonviolent demonstration against segregation – had published in local newspapers "A Call for Unity," urging civil rights protesters to be patient and wait for the courts to bring about reform. In his letter, King countered that African Americans had been patient too long. King had long been critical of the unwillingness of white Southern clergy to stand up to the moral wrongs of racism. In his eloquent letter, King urged his fellow clergy to be "extremists of love."

“Was not Jesus an extremist in love? – ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.’ … Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? – ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? – ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love?”

Most would have to wait weeks or months to read the letter, when it was printed in publications such as the New York Post, Christian Century, and Atlantic Monthly. But a select few had the opportunity to view King's letter before it was published. Shortly after the letter was completed, mimeographed copies were distributed to pastors and ministers in and around Birmingham. One of the clergy to receive a copy was my grandfather, Rev. Samuel Brooken Campbell.

His name is not one associated with the civil rights movement. In fact, he isn't really known outside his own family and church circles. But in the spring of 1963, as a Baptist preacher ministering to a small congregation in Chalkville, just outside Birmingham, my grandfather had a small brush with history when he received a copy of King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s handwritten notes

What my grandfather thought of King or his letter, I do not know and probably never will. I learned of his connection to the letter only after his death in 2011. My father – 11 years old in 1963 – remembers seeing the letter on my grandfather's desk and reading it, and wishes that he had asked his father more about it while he was still lucid. Did my grandfather read the letter or not? Did he keep his copy or throw it away? Did he have any inkling in 1963 – or in the four plus decades that followed – of the significance of that document?

I cannot say, but I do know this: whatever my grandfather may have thought of King's impassioned plea, like the clergy King referenced in his letter, my grandfather was silent on the issue of segregation. In truth, my grandfather was silent on every issue save one: the saving of souls. My grandfather was distinctly concerned with the next life, not this one. His interest was in shepherding the unfaithful to God. (It was one of his greatest heartbreaks that he could not convince me or my sister to accept Jesus Christ as our personal savior.) Hard as it is to fathom given where and when he lived, I don't know if he thought much about what was happening in the world around him – even though a lot was happening in Birmingham in 1963.

Firefighters turn their hoses full force on civil rights demonstrators July 15, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama.

“I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say that as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say it as a minister of the gospel who loves the church, who was nurtured in its bosom, who has been sustained by its Spiritual blessings, and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

I had the strange feeling when I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery several years ago that we would have the support of the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, some few have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams of the past, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and with deep moral concern serve as the channel through which our just grievances could get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.”

Sept. 16, 1963: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gives a news conference in Birmingham announcing he and other African-American leaders have called for federal Army occupation of Birmingham in the wake of the previous day's church bombing and shootings which left six black people dead.

Fortunately, for the sake of the civil rights movement, our country and its citizens, many were moved to action by the power of Martin Luther King Jr.'s words. Though its impact was perhaps not as immediate as civil rights leaders had hoped, the letter did help reignite the Birmingham campaign and the movement as a whole. The months that followed the letter and King's time in the Birmingham Jail would be difficult ones in Birmingham – in May, Bull Connor authorized the police to use fire hoses and dogs against civil rights protesters; in the fall, four young girls died in a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church. But throughout the turmoil, King's words – from the Birmingham letter to his iconic speech at the March on Washington a few months later – were a source of inspiration, a rallying cry for peaceful resistance in the face of brutality. And they still resonate today.

“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”