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New American Songbook

Letter From Birmingham Jail | NAS


This year marks the 55th anniversary of the writing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "Letter From Birmingham Jail."

In 1963, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, began a non-violent campaign against segregation in Birmingham, which eventually lead to King’s arrest, along with several other demonstrators. The letter itself is a response to critics of the both the campaign and King’s reliance on non-violent disruption, specifically taking to task the "white moderate" who urges patience in the face of injustice.

The subject of the letter is, of course, important and unfortunately still relevant today. But the material history of the letter points to another layer of meaning. King began by writing the letter in the margins of a smuggled newspaper, continuing onto scraps of paper and then finally on a legal pad provided by his lawyers. The letter in its various forms was eventually combined, published in parts, and then recombined as a whole a year later, a process strikingly similar to sampling and production in hip hop music.

The use of jail and prison as narrative environments in hip hop is fairly common, and we can discern important changes in the evolution of American prisons by noticing differences between King’s letter and examples from hip hop. While there are notable examples of raps delivered from the perspective of the imprisoned, more often the letters we hear these days are going outside in, as in Nas’ "One Love," a letter to a friend in prison. Kool G Rap’s assertion in his track "Rikers Island" that "they say they’re overcrowded but there’s room for you," supports Talib Kweli’s observation that the state is "creating crime rates to fill the new prisons they build,"

Whereas King’s imprisonment was intentional—a tactic used by the civil rights movement to put pressure on the judicial system through overcrowding local jails—that same tactic is rendered ineffective by the modern carceral state.