Read "Letter from Birmingham Jail" as it appeared in the Century. See also Robert Westbrook's cover story on the letter's 50th anniversary.

Martin Luther King Jr. lived less than four decades, and his public life spanned only 13 years, ending in 1968. In that time, the Baptist minister turned civil rights activist pricked the conscience of an America that was just a hundred years removed from Civil War and still wrestling to make real its creed that “all men are created equal.” One of King’s most piercing proclamations of his faith-tinged message of nonviolent resistance was “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a letter written in the tradition of the apostle Paul’s prison epistles. Barnard College sociologist and historian Jonathan Rieder surveys the events that gave rise to King’s message and offers a fresh perspective on the substance of the letter itself, which “provided nothing less than the moral and philosophical foundations” of the civil rights movement.

The year 1963 was a crucial one for King. Many recall the August 1963 March on Washington, which begat King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech, as the defining moment of the civil rights movement. But the setting for the year’s most crucial action was not Washington, D.C., but Birmingham, Alabama.