Many people know Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous text “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” but many do not know why he was in jail to begin with.
After a full week of direct action including marches and sit-ins in Birmingham, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing”.
The Birmingham campaign leadership decided to disobey the ruling and, on April 12, 1963, Dr. King was arrested with Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth and other marchers by infamous Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor for demonstrating without a permit.
Dr. King spent 11 days in that jail. During this time, he penned the Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.
I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
Shortly thereafter, on May 10, the Birmingham agreement is announced wherein the stores, restaurants, and schools will be desegregated, hiring of blacks implemented, and charges dropped.
Three months later, on August 8, 1963, Dr. King makes his famous I Have a Dream speech at the March on Washington with nearly 250,000 people in attendance. Three months after that, on November 22, President John F. Kennedy is assassinated.