This Day In History: April 12

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On April 12, 1963, Good Friday, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is arrested and jailed for a campaign of protests, marches and sit-ins against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. The actions, orchestrated with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference and their partners in the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, had begun a little over a week earlier, on April 3.

King and dozens of his fellow protestors were arrested for continuing to demonstrate in the face of an injunction obtained by Commissioner of Public Safety Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor. Connor, who had just lost the mayoral election, remains one of the most notorious pro-segregationists in American history thanks to the brutal methods his forces employed against the Birmingham protestors that summer. The man who had won the election, Albert Boutwell, was also a segregationist, and he was one of many who accused “outsiders”—he clearly meant King—of stirring up trouble in Birmingham.

As he sat in a solitary jail cell without even a mattress to sleep on, King began to pen a response to his critics on some scraps of paper. This open letter, now known as his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” offered a full-throated defense of the Birmingham protest campaign and is now regarded as one of the greatest texts of the civil rights movement.

The United Auto Workers paid King’s $160,000 bail, and he was released from jail on April 20. Four months later, King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, regarded by many as the high-water mark of his movement. The following year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which guaranteed voting rights to minorities and outlawed segregation and racial discrimination in all places of public accommodation.