Dr. King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ to be read in full at Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Eastern State Penitentiary will be hosting its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration with a mix of in-person and online programming. The historic prison museum is staging a reading of the complete text of Dr. King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” from April 1963.

The reading will be conducted by community members, activists, students, educators, elected officials, and artists. Those staying at home on MLK Day can follow along on Zoom or Facebook.

The event will be hosted by Philly performance artist STARFIRE, and will feature conversations and reflections on Dr. King’s legacy and civil disobedience.

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King had to write the letter on the margins of newspapers smuggled into his jail cell by his lawyer. The letter states that everyone has a moral obligation to stand up to unjust laws, and that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“Dr. King’s extraordinary letter has never been more relevant,” says Sean Kelley, senior vice president and director of interpretation for Eastern State Penitentiary. “Dr. King wrote in his letter of his disappointment with the nation’s ‘white moderates,’ who supported change but were unwilling to support civil disobedience. By choosing arrest and incarceration, Dr. King forced many Americans to acknowledge the immorality and systemic oppression of the nation’s justice system, and the urgency for change.”

The MLK Day event runs from 1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 17.

In accordance with guidelines issued by the City of Philadelphia, all staff and visitors (ages 2+) are required to wear a mask in indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status. Seating is limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis.

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