April 16: places and memory–Birmingham Jail
2012/04/16 § 1 Comment
On this day in 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote an open letter to clergymen from the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama.
First published when he was still incarcerated for his participation in a non-violent protest, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is in part King’s apologia for the protest, but is also a broader theme in support of civil disobedience in the face of unjust laws. The letter may have been prompted by one specific event within a single rights movement, but it has farther reach than that. As King so eloquently stated:
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
The cause was just; action was necessary. Then and now, civil disobedience is not a threat to democracy; it is a requirement for its preservation.
What does this have to do with the history of architecture? Well. One might make the discrete argument that the genesis of this profound letter argues for the preservation of the place where it was written, even though it was otherwise architecturally insignificant. But more importantly, it shows how a document can be tied to the context of its creation. Its words are striking and its theme unforgettable, but the framing of those words with the image above makes them more memorable. This is so even for a letter penned in isolation–and the image of King’s seclusion is significant–but even more so for other documents, sermons and speeches that have had a greater setting in which the speaker and his audience are joined in the midst of a symbolic setting. Seeing that interchange is at the very core of American democracy.
The possibility for civic gatherings is a significant aspect of the human interchange that has historically taken place in cities. It’s an argument for the allotment, sharing, and preservation of the open spaces that have been the settings of so many of our great speeches, whether they are spontaneous happenings or the result of excruciatingly planned stagecraft. They speak to the opportunity offered by certain kinds of architecture–architecture that embodies some kind of legible symbolism that is amenable to memorial quality–to enhance the memorableness of those great speeches. And King, who wrote this letter in a remote, nondescript prison cell, also knew how to use those large spaces, sounding another call for civil rights to an audience of 200,000 people spread between the monument for the country’s first president, a slave holder, and the memorial for the Great Emancipator.
We don’t need the space to understand the words, but the public discourse is made more memorable for being presented and shared in a public place; the monuments surely derive a patina of significance for having been the surfaces from which the sounds of democracy echo.
Read the full text of the Letter from Birmingham Jail here.