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Eastern State's Martin Luther King Day 2021

Eastern State Penitentiary Commemorates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with Interactive Virtual Readings, Poetry, and Music

January 4, 2021

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site will commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a free, virtual program on Monday, January 18, 2021 from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Students, educators, artists and activists will read and discuss Dr. King’s landmark text “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and will share music, poetry and art inspired by Dr. King’s legacy.

Program attendees will hear six selected passages from Dr. King’s 1963 landmark text “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and engage in discussion about the letter’s relevance today. Between each session, special guests will provide space for reflection and connection as they share music, poetry, and art.

“After a year of nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice, 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 taught us that civil disobedience was essential to the civil rights movement. When this highly educated and prominent man chose arrest and incarceration, it forced many Americans to confront not just the racism of individual behavior, but also the immorality and oppression in the nation’s legal system.”

Eastern State Penitentiary’s Martin Luther King Day program will take place virtually, live-streamed on the organization’s Facebook and via Zoom webinar. It will be comprised of six 30-minute, back-to-back sessions, so attendees can participate in just one session or tune in for all six. This event is free and open to the public. No reservations necessary. 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.

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.

For more information, the public should visit or call 215-236-3300.


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MLK taught us the impact of civil disobedience in the fight for civil rights. Learn more at @EasternState's virtual King Day event 1/18. Students, educators, artists & activists read + discuss MLK's Letter from Birmingham Jail and share music, poetry & art

Please Note:
Eastern State Penitentiary is temporarily closed to the public. The historic site anticipates a March 2021 reopening.


2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner