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Letter from a Birmingham Jail
By Brenda B. Covert

in order of Appearance
Narrator -  male or female
Jailer -  male or female
Martin Luther King, Jr. -  black male in a business suit
MLK Voiceover -  from the stage's edge, this male reads aloud what Dr. King is writing
Four White Clergymen -  (2 bishops, 1 reverend, 1 rabbi)
Jane -  black female in late 50's-style dress
Ted -  black male in a business suit
Wanda -  black female in vintage teen clothing
Richie -  black male in vintage jeans and plain white t-shirt
Lawyer -  white, Asian, or Hispanic male or female in business suit, carrying briefcase

Setting: jail cell. The look can be had by tacking artwork of a window with bars on it to the wall or the curtain behind the actors.

Props: plain wooden chair set center stage and facing audience, small table or desk, newspaper, scrap of paper, legal pad, a simple black pen that doesn't look modern, and a briefcase.

NARRATOR:   In April 1963, Martin Luther King was arrested and placed in a Birmingham jail. [JAILER escorts KING to a chair and leaves him there.] His crime was that he participated in a peaceful demonstration against the city's wishes. He had joined a group to protest segregation. While in jail, he read a letter that was published in the Birmingham News. [KING retrieves paper from floor beside chair and opens to read, holding paper low so that his face is still seen.] Eight local clergymen, all white, had demanded that he end his demonstrations. With nothing but the newspaper to write on, Dr. King began his response.

[KING moves chair to table, pulls pen from pocket, and writes on margin of newspaper.]

MLK VOICEOVER:   While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

FIRST CLERGYMAN:   (walking briskly onstage toward KING; stopping 3 feet away) [KING looks up] Why did you come to Birmingham? You aren't from here! We don't need outsiders coming in to solve our problems.

[KING goes back to writing.]

MLK VOICEOVER:   I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. I am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Beyond that, I'm here because I was invited here. I'm here because I have ties here through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

SECOND CLERGYMAN:   (walks in as FIRST CLERGYMAN walks off) Why Birmingham, of all places? The demonstrations taking place in my city are deplorable and should be stopped at once!

MLK VOICEOVER:   It's unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it's even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the black community with no alternative. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Black leaders tried to negotiate with city leaders, but the city leaders refused to negotiate.

[KING continues to write as SECOND CLERGYMAN leaves; JANE and TED enter and speak]

JANE:   (enters stage right and stands upstage right, speaking to audience) Last September, our black leaders spoke to the city merchants. The merchants promised that if we stopped demonstrating, they would remove those awful signs -- the ones that said "Whites Only" or "No Coloreds Allowed." They promised to stop displaying those signs at lunch counters, restrooms, and stores. So we stopped holding demonstrations. Then we realized that we were the victims of broken promises. The few signs that had been taken down were put back up! Many other signs were never removed at all.

TED:   (enters stage right and stands beside JANE, speaking to audience) Once again our hopes had been blasted. We knew we had to take direct action and lay our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence. We repeatedly asked ourselves: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?"

JANE:   Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?

TED:   We chose the Easter season to put our direct-action plan to use. Easter is one of the biggest shopping seasons of the year. We decided not to shop here in town while we also demonstrated in the streets. That would put pressure on the merchants. We made allowances for the mayoral election and didn't hold any demonstrations until after election day. We have behaved fairly and decently. We just ask for our civil rights.

THIRD CLERGYMAN:   (walks in from stage left and stops 3 feet from KING) Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?

JANE:   (turning to address the clergyman with hands on hips) Were you not listening? We tried negotiation!

TED:   (pointing at clergyman) You people refused to negotiate! You treat us like second class citizens! (Turns to JANE with his arm crooked; she takes it, and they walk off stage right with heads held high.)

MLK VOICEOVER:   Nonviolent direct action seeks to create a crisis and dramatize the issue so that it can't be ignored. I agree with you in your call for negotiation. The purpose of our direct action was to open the door to negotiation.

FOURTH CLERGYMAN:   (walks in as THIRD CLERGYMAN walks off) The action you have taken is untimely. We just elected a new mayor and other city officials. Why didn't you give the new city administration time to act?

MLK VOICEOVER:   While the new mayor is a more gentle man than the old mayor, the fact remains that he is as much a segregationist as the old one. It is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. It's interesting that direct action is never "well-timed" in the eyes of those who have never lived under injustice. We have always been told to wait. Wait has almost always meant never.

JAILER:   (entering the stage as FOURTH CLERGYMAN leaves and addressing KING) Are you through with that paper yet?

[KING hesitates, then tears off the strip he has been writing on and puts it in his jacket pocket]

KING:   (folding the paper and holding it out to the JAILER) Certainly. Here you are.

JAILER:   Gimme that. (Jerks paper from KING'S hands and leaves)

[KING stands up and searches through his pockets. He finds a scrap of paper and sits down to write.]

[WANDA and RICHIE enter from stage left]

WANDA:   (forcefully) We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights!

RICHIE:   (firmly) The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining political independence!

WANDA:   Meanwhile, we creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining --

RICHIE:   -- a cup of coffee at a lunch counter!

[WANDA and RICHIE exit stage left]

MLK VOICEOVER:   (passionately) It's easy for you to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you suddenly find yourself stammering as you try to explain to your little girl why she can't go to the public amusement park that she saw advertised on television because it is closed to colored children; when you have to come up with an answer for a five-year-old son who asks, "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?" when you are forever fighting a sense of "nobodiness," then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over.

FIRST CLERGYMAN:   (enters as before) I don't understand how a man of the cloth could willingly break the law. You are in jail because you broke the law. How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?

MLK VOICEOVER:   There are two types of laws: just and unjust. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. However, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. An unjust law is no law at all. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. A law that is inflicted on a people who are not allowed a vote is not just. All segregation statutes are unjust; they give the white man a false sense of superiority and the black man a false sense of inferiority. (Pause for breath) My crime was "parading without a permit," that is, I participated in a peaceful march down a city street. There is nothing wrong with requiring a permit for a parade, but it is wrong if it is used to deny blacks the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

SECOND CLERGYMAN:   (joining FIRST CLERGYMAN onstage) I still disagree that civil disobedience is necessary in order to bring change. It's just wrong!

MLK VOICEOVER:   The Boston Tea Party was a massive act of civil disobedience. [CLERGYMEN look at each other, surprised, then embarrassed] Everything Hitler did in Germany was called legal, and everything the freedom fighters did was considered illegal. It was illegal to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Had I been there, I would have disobeyed those laws. I would have done my best to help the Jews. Would you have done any different?

[CLERGYMEN exit stage right with bowed heads.]

[JAILER and LAWYER enter from stage left. KING slips paper into his jacket pocket.]

JAILER:   Look here, Mr. King. Your lawyer has come to see you.

[KING stands and waits expectantly.]

LAWYER:   How are you holding up, Dr. King?

KING:   As well as can be expected, under the circumstances.

JAILER:   I'll leave you two alone. (exits)

LAWYER:   (shaking KING's hand) We hope to have you out of here in just a few days. You may want to consider this a nine-day vacation.

KING:   (laughing) No thanks. Not much about a stay in jail can be considered a vacation, but I have managed to do a bit of writing. Did you bring --

LAWYER:   -- that pad of paper you asked for? Most surely. It's in here. (flips briefcase onto the table and opens it, withdraws a legal pad, and offers it to KING) Will this do?

KING:   (smiling and accepting the pad) Yes, this is just what I need to finish the letter I've been writing.

LAWYER:   If there's anything else you need, just let me know.

JAILER:   (entering) Your time's up. (Begins to escort LAWYER from the stage)

LAWYER:   (over shoulder toward KING) I'll be in touch!

KING:   (lifting hand as if to wave) I appreciate it!

[KING returns to chair and places the pad on the table.]

[THIRD and FOURTH CLERGYMEN enter stage.]

Paragraphs 99 to 122:
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