As we observe the national holiday celebrating the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there is a rare example of his rhetorical mastery that begs attention in the Donohue Rare Book Room: Letter from Birmingham Jail.
This well-known treatise, penned in August 1963, as Dr. King sat behind bars in Birmingham, Alabama not only serves as an all-too-relevant appeal to support the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, but also amazes the audience with his genius in the art of argumentation, persuasion and diction. Though finding copies of this work to read is no real challenge, this publication by Overbrook Press (1934-1969) is something special. The elegant French style of printing, the Foreword by publisher, Frank Altschul and and the inclusion of the letter Dr. King received from clergy that prompted his eloquent yet scathing rebuke of criticism against Civil Rights activism sets this apart by providing the context for this piece as well as a visually pleasing format of which such a critical historical letter is most certainly worthy.
Frank Altschul (1887-1981) was a San Francisco native, financier and philanthropist who had a passion for rare books and a desire to create rare printings that captured important historical texts, many of which were authored in his lifetime. The publication of Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1968 was meant to be a dedication to Dr. King, who had been assassinated that same year. Only 600 copies were printed.
The experience of reviewing this piece as a rare book is a ritual of reverence. Care must be taken to assure its preservation. No one could blame an apprehensive researcher for feeling intimidated by the prospect of potentially harming such important work, but the Special Collections team is supportive and knowledgeable and provides all the tools necessary to enjoy items in this collection responsibly.
A common misconception is that one must wear gloves. This is not the case! As long as one takes care to employ practices that reduce stress on the book, there is no reason to worry. Acid free paper strips to serve as bookmarks are provided for visitors viewing books. The book itself is held gently by book rests, which reduce stress on the spine. Velvet book weights are used to hold down pages while you read in order to reduce stress on the pages and spine. Using a pencil for notes helps avoid any unfortunate mishaps with ink and turning pages from the corners and not the middle helps preserve the integrity of the paper. Once a book is set up for review, it’s a simple yet elegant exercise and someone in the Donohue Rare Book Room is there to assist.
For anyone inspired by the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail is essential reading. You can find this and many other beautifully produced works in the Donohue Rare Book Room at Gleeson Library.
The Donohue Rare Book Room is on the 3rd floor of Gleeson Library and is open Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
King, Martin L., Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail. Overbrook Press, 1968, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=cat00548a&AN=iusf.b1453853&authtype=sso&custid=s3818721&site=eds-live&scope=site&custid=s3818721.
Krebs, Albin. “Frank Altschul, a Banker and Noted Philanthropist.”, May 30, 1981, https://www.nytimes.com/1981/05/30/obituaries/frank-altschul-a-banker-and-noted-philanthropist.html.
Roberts, Priscilla. Draft Biography of Frank Altschul. , 2022.