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MLK Day: Historic prison plans readings of King's 1963 letter from jail

Former Philadelphia prison pays tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. with readings from his 1963 jail letter

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it's fitting that a former prison will present readings of historic words the civil rights leader wrote from a jail cell.

The Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site in Philadelphia has scheduled daily readings this weekend of "Letter From Birmingham Jail," a statement says.

King wrote the open letter in 1963 when he was jailed for demonstrating without a permit in Birmingham, Ala.

It reads, in part:

"I submit that an individual who breaks the law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law." 

The letter was written in response to Alabama clergy members who were questioning his strategy of nonviolent resistance. Some thought the civil rights battle should be fought in the courts rather than the streets.

For King, the act of even writing the letter was one of defiance. Jail detainees weren't allowed pencils or pens, but a pencil was sneaked in. King wrote his letter in the margins of a newspaper and on scraps of paper that were then smuggled out.

The readings will take place at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Saturday through Monday. They'll be followed by Q&A sessions with civil rights scholars to discuss the significance of King's words during the struggles of the 1960s and now. The events are free and open to the public.

Those who attend may want to pay the $14 admission to tour the former Gothic-style penitentiary, which opened in 1829 and held prisoners like Al Capone and bank robber Willy Sutton.

Another place to hear the jail letter: You can enter a re-creation of the Birmingham jail cell and listen to portions read by King himself at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. The museum is housed in the motel where King was assassinated in 1968.

Info: Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, (215) 236-3300; National Civil Rights Museum, (901) 521-9699

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