Standing on the bimah inside Eastern State Penitentiary's synagogue on Sunday, actor Dax Richardson recited the letter Dr. Martin Luther King wrote while held in 1963 for 11 days in a Birmingham jail.
The former Philadelphia prison turned historic tour site held readings twice daily Sunday and Monday and followed each with a Q&A moderated by a civil rights scholar in honor of the 50th anniversary of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The tours during those days also focused on the impact of the civil rights movement at the prison and how inmates reacted to King’s assassination in 1968.
King was arrested in 1963 for marching through the Birmingham streets without a permit.
“We celebrate the anniversary of Dr. King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ to explore the ongoing relationship between the civil rights movement and the criminal justice system,” said Sean Kelley, director of public programming at the historic site.
Closed in 1970, the prison stood largely unused for more than 20 years before it was designated a public historic site and opened for tours in 1994. The synagogue went overlooked for even longer, until 2004, when a Jewish board member led fundraising efforts to restore the small room, which is now open to the public. When officials at the site were planning the readings, Kelley said they initially thought about the synagogue as a venue because of its beauty — and because it was heated. But then they reflected on whom King's letter was addressed to: clergymen who had opposed King's march, one of whom was a rabbi.
"He specifically references the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders," Kelley said.