King’s LiteratureS, and ours
Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” This week Barnett Wright, journalist and author of 1963: How the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement Changed America and the World, blogged to remind us all how Martin Luther King Jr. came “to pen what many consider a jewel of American literature.”
Because King has through the decades been accused of plagiarism, it’s important to consider the composing process for this particular letter. History records the facts of its composition particularly as a most difficult construct solely from the memory of King and mainly penned literally in the dark. (Theophrastus alludes to the alleged plagiarisms in his post here. A book length history, written perhaps as a culture wars piece itself, is Plagiarism and the Culture War: The Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr, and Other Prominent Americans by Theodore Pappas. One of the best responses from outside the King estate is Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources by Keith D. Miller. None of this analysis examines the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” And yet, I think it is important to consider the various and varied accounts of the different versions of this letter for insights into the controversy surrounding the plagiarism accounts for King’s other writings and speeches and sermons.)
Because this letter is part of the “essay cannon” of higher education in America, it’s important to consider the material conditions under which it was composed. Let me just repeat some things here in this post that I’d observed in another:
King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” also known as “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” also known as “The Negro Is Your Brother,” has three distinct variants. I discovered this after talking with Lynn Z. Bloom by email, after she included this in her fabulous “Essay Canon.” I noticed that what Bloom included in her textbook for the canon was not the same text I had studied. But then that was to be expected. King himself published various versions for different audiences and different journals and books. And his story of how the document first came to be was not always the same. Sometimes the claim was he mainly only had jail toilet paper and old newspaper margins to write on. Other times he was not so descriptive of the detail, saying (or writing) things with more propriety like, “Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly Negro trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.”
Wright’s blogpost quotes “Samford University history professor Jonathan Bass [who] calls the letter the single most influential writing of the civil rights era.” Indeed, and Bass does more for all of us.
In his book, Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letters from Birmingham Jail”, Bass provides the most complete account of King’s plans for the letter. This includes King’s beginning to compose it in 1962, well before he was jailed in Birmingham, well before his memory was his only source for writing, scribbling in the dark on toilet paper. The Bass account is also important because it shows very well how King’s writing was collaborative, and not just solitary as in the jail cell. The letter took a community to compose. There was planning, sharing, scribbling, writing, revising, typing, publishing, public relations, and republishing. Wyatt Tee Walker and Willie Pearl Mackey and the unnamed jailer are key persons in the composing and the publications of this important essay. This sort of community collaborative writing, I believe, is the case for much of King’s literature. It belongs to a community, even its composition. It belongs to our communities now, even its canonization as an exemplary essay, even its translation into scores of languages, even its memory half a century later.