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Eastern State Penitentiary Commemorates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with Reading of His “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

-- Community readers will present the landmark text, offering live and remote audiences opportunities for engagement and reflection --

January 3, 2022

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site will commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a free, hybrid program on Monday, January 17, 2022 from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Attendees may join in person at the penitentiary or remotely via Zoom or Facebook. Community readers, including students, educators, public officials, artists, and activists, will read and reflect on Dr. King’s landmark text “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Hosted by popular Philadelphia performance artist STARFIRE, the program will also include opportunities for audience reflection, plus music and art inspired by Dr. King’s legacy. All activities will be free and open to the public.

The annual program will present Dr. King's extensive text from start to finish for the first time. The reading will be divided into three acts with an intermission between each. During the breaks, Eastern State will invite attendees on site to write letters to people incarcerated in Pennsylvania, and, for remote attendees, will offer prompts and activities for reflection.

The program will be hosted by local emcee and fan favorite STARFIRE, who uses her energy, love, and creativity to inspire and empower. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site is pleased to welcome back STARFIRE, with whom it has collaborated on such projects as Hidden Lives Illuminated and its 2021 commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Through its open call for community readers, and in the spirit of Dr. King’s encouragement of everyday people to get involved in the 1960s civil rights movement, Eastern State encourages people near and far to participate by submitting recorded video of themselves reading sections of Dr. King’s letter. The selected submission(s) will be shown as a pre-recorded video to kick off the upcoming program. Details can be found at Deadline for submission is January 7, 2022.

"Dr. King’s extraordinary letter has never been more relevant,” says Sean Kelley, senior vice president, director of interpretation for Eastern State Penitentiary. “Dr. King wrote in his letter of his disappointment with the nation's ‘white moderates,’ who supported change but were unwilling to support civil disobedience. By choosing arrest and incarceration, Dr. King forced many Americans to acknowledge the immorality and systemic oppression of the nation’s justice system, and the urgency for change.”

“As we gather to honor and celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy, I hope the participants who join us will be inspired and stirred by the reading of ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’” says STARFIRE, the event emcee. “May we all leave this shared experience with a deeper awareness of our individual power and personal agency as human beings to live and be the change we wish to see in ourselves, our communities, and in our nation.”

Eastern State Penitentiary’s 2022 Dr. Martin Luther King Day program will take place Monday, January 17, 2022, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. E.T. It will take place live in person at the penitentiary, as well as virtually, live-streamed on the organization’s Facebook and via Zoom webinar. This event is free and open to the public. No reservations necessary.

In-person attendees are encouraged to dress for the weather. The event space will be heated with temporary space heaters. Continued COVID-19 safety measures will remain in place. In accordance with guidelines issued by the City of Philadelphia, all staff and visitors (ages 2+) will be required to wear a mask in indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status. Hand sanitizer will be available throughout the site. Seating will be limited and available on a first come, first served basis.

The live stream on Facebook and Zoom will include open captioning.

For more information, the public can visit

About “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama on April 12, 1963 for demonstrating without a permit. During his 11 days in jail there, he wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to a letter published by Alabama clergymen that criticized King’s use of jail time to demonstrate civil injustice.

In the letter, Dr. King explains why he chose to use prisons as a tool in his civil rights movement. He writes, “I submit that an individual who breaks the law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.”

The writing of the letter itself involved rule breaking. Prisoners were not allowed instruments to write during this time, so Dr. King’s lawyer snuck in a pencil. The letter was written in the margins of a newspaper and smuggled back out by the same lawyer. The letter became a manifesto for civil disobedience, stating, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The letter led to a pivotal moment in the American civil rights movement when, about a month after it was published, Birmingham officials agreed to desegregate schools, restaurants, and stores.

STARFIRE is a “curator of energy and creative expression.” As a master of ceremonies, creative director, and educator, STARFIRE empowers and inspires performing artists and creatives to discover, develop, and celebrate the power of their unique voice.

STARFIRE has collaborated with organizations such as Mural Arts Philadelphia, The Barnes Foundation, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Eastern State Penitentiary, The Women's Film Festival, FringeArts, The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, ACLU Pennsylvania, MenzFit, and more.

About Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site:
Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site interprets the legacy of American criminal justice reform, from the nation’s founding through to the present day, within the long-abandoned cellblocks of the nation’s most historic prison.

Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, but stands today in ruin, a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers. Known for its grand architecture and strict discipline, this was the world's first true "penitentiary," a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of prisoners. Its vaulted, sky-lit cells held approximately 80,000 men and women during its 142 years of operation, including bank robber "Slick Willie" Sutton and “Scarface” Al Capone.

In recent years, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site has been awarded the prestigious Excellence in Exhibitions award by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the nation’s highest award in exhibition development and design, for its exhibit Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration, as well as the Institutional Award for Special Achievement from the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and the Trustee Emeritus Award for Stewardship from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Returning Citizens Tour Guide Project, which hires people who were formerly incarcerated to lead tours of the historic site, has won the EdCom Award for Innovation in Museum Education by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and has been featured internationally by such networks as the BBC and others.

Eastern State Penitentiary is open for tours year-round. Current hours of operation are Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online at, or at the door, subject to availability. Free admission for Eastern State members.

Hours of operation are subject to change. For the latest information, the public should visit


2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner