Martin Luther King’s Historic Birmingham Jail Speech, 1967
PaperDr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Important and rare Civil Rights document from the original files of the SCLC, the Civil Rights organization King founded after the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. First Edition. Dated October 30, 1967, the day of King’s return to Birmingham, the locus of one of his most triumphant campaigns and also where his volunteers endured some of the greatest persecution. 4 mimeograph pages, stapled upper left. 8.5” x 11” inches. After 4 years of court battles, King must turn himself over to Birmingham authorities to serve a jail sentence resulting from violating an illegal injunction during his 1963 non-violent demonstrations,“We depart for jail in Birmingham convinced that our imprisonment is a small price to pay for the historic achievement which directly flowed from the convictions on the streets of Birmingham.” One copy of this statement is held by the archives of the King Center; and no other copies among institutional holdings or auction records.
In this moving speech, King reminds his followers how Birmingham in 1963 united the Civil Rights Movement, “We recall with pride how thousands of Negro citizens facing dogs, fire hoses, mass arrests and other outrages against human dignity bore dramatic witness to the evils which pervaded the most segregated city in our nation. History has since recorded how these non-violent demonstrators led to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislation which finally brought the end of legal segregation.” Birmingham in 1967 now brings the opportunity to make them aware of a new foe, the “X-party injunction (sic--meaning ex parte injunction) used by hostile local courts to frustrate and silence the vital First Amendment rights of all citizens.” But while the battle for civil rights had found its way to the courtroom, it was still very much in the streets as well, “We are witnessing an escalating disregard for constitutional freedom. In the last two weeks U.S. Marshals, state troopers, and local police have clubbed demonstrators in Washington, Berkeley and Madison, Wis.; police have dragged girls by the hair in Brooklyn, Tear gas has scattered and routed protestors in Washington, Berkeley, and Oberlin, Ohio, and even the odious fire hoses of Bull Connor were callously deployed against college students at Oberlin. Student arrests in this short period are beginning to reach levels unknown in this country since Selma.” As King presents himself to Birmingham authorities, he reminds his followers of the true meaning of civil disobedience, “we will not appeal nor will we seek to flee the punishment. It is the heart of civil disobedience that one accepts the consequences willingly and openly.” And through his sacrifice, King reminds them that they too may be called as brave soldiers to the cause, “As we leave for Birmingham Jail today, we call out to America: “Take heed. Do not allow the Bill or [sic] Rights to become a prisoner of war.”
Period sources state King handwrote his speeches before handing them off to aides, who would type a clean copy then mimeograph them for the press, typically in a run of about 200 copies. Most, if not all, were distributed to the press, and then lost. Today, the only other original copy of this document is in the collection of the King Center. Like those in the King Center, this document escaped destruction because it were never distributed, but rather remained as the personal copy of King or his top staffers. This can be proven by the fact that all press copies were carefully inscribed with a copyright symbol ©, while King’s copy brought with him to the podium and other internal copies remained blank. This press release spent decades in an SCLC filing cabinet, where it was exposed to dampening on the left side but is otherwise untouched. It now presents in only fair condition with water staining and rust around the original staple, which is still holding. Mark from previous paper-clipping upper left. Light grey water stains to left side of document and bottom left corner frayed. All text legible. The right side of the document was apparently more protected in its file and is in very good condition. It was gifted from the Estate of Thomas Offenburger to Stoney Cooks. Both Offenburger and Cooks worked with King at the SCLC, with Offenburger as publicist and Cooks as a young Director of Student Affairs. King’s return to Birmingham is a stunning moment in Civil Rights history, preserved through this historic document.
See all items in First Editions, Signed or Rare Books, Exceptional Pieces , African American, Civil Rights, Social Activist
See all items by Martin Luther King