The letter was written at a moment when King thought he had failed.
He and others had organized a massive protest in one of the most violently segregationist cities in the South. The local Ku Klux Klan was one of the most violent in the nation and had infiltrated the police department. The KKK had been suspected in so many bombings of Birmingham’s black community that the city had been dubbed “Bombingham.” (Four black girls attending a black church in Birmingham would be killed by a bomb five months after King’s letter.)
But the protests faltered because activists couldn’t summon enough participants and were running out of bail money for those who had been arrested. King decided he needed to do something dramatic. He provoked his arrest by leading a demonstration on April 12, 1963, Good Friday.
King’s boldness may have been forced by events outside Birmingham. He had become a national figure eight years earlier after leading the successful bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that brought Rosa Parks to fame. Yet he’d had no major victories since then, and a younger generation of activists — sit-in protesters and F
reedom Riders — were grabbing headlines and questioning King’s toughness.
“They had taken away the initiative from King,” says Clayborne Carson, editor of the multi-volume “The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” one of the most comprehensive collections of King’s speeches and writings. King’s late widow, Coretta Scott King, selected Carson to edit King’s papers.
“Nearly everything that happens, nothing of it has anything to do with King,” says Carson, director of the King institute at Stanford. “King needed a victory desperately.”
King’s desperation deepened after he was placed in solitary confinement in the Birmingham jail. He hated being alone. He depended on the company of people for emotional support after his many arrests. He also had been scarred by an earlier experience when he was driven to an isolated jail in rural Georgia where he thought he was going to be killed.
King also had been virtually isolated by his own community. Only about five Black churches in Birmingham allowed King to use their churches for mass meetings. The rest wanted nothing to do with him, says Rieder.
“A lot of them were being cautious about politics,” he says. “They were part of the professional classes and didn’t want to rock the boat. And some of them didn’t like the idea of the big man coming in to tell them what to do.”
Depressed and angry and alone in jail, King read an ad that had been placed in a Birmingham newspaper by eight moderate White clergymen. The newspaper had been smuggled to King while he was in jail. In the ad, the clergymen called King an outside agitator and lawbreaker and counseled him to wait.