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MLK Weekend at Eastern State Penitentiary

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

December 18, 2018

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site commemorates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with three days of free community programs, Saturday, January 19 through Monday, January 21, 2019. The historic prison offers special readings of Dr. King’s 1963 landmark text “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and opportunities for visitors to respond to its relevance in light of recent civil and human rights movements. Additional programming is available Monday, January 21, including family arts & crafts projects, children’s stories, and community electronics recycling.

“Dr. King’s extraordinary letter has never been more relevant,” says Sean Kelley, Director of Interpretation and Public Programming 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 to spend time in jails, it forced many Americans to confront not just the racism of individual behavior, but the immorality and oppression in the nation’s legal system as well. We look forward to an open and frank discussion about Dr. King’s actions in light of the ongoing controversy around our nation.”

Readings and Discussions on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday:
Professional actors, youth readers, and community leaders read excerpts from King’s letter three times a day on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. An informal Q&A moderated by a civil rights scholar follows each reading, giving visitors an opportunity to respond to the letter’s relevance today. The readings are free and open to the public. No reservations required.

Family Activities on Monday, January 21:
The historic site invites children ages 7-12 and their families to create art in response to themes found in the letter, and read stories about Dr. King’s life and legacy. Family activities are available on Monday, January 21, free and open to the public. No reservations required.

Community Electronics Recycling on Monday, January 21:
In partnership with PAR-Recycle Works, the historic site encourages the public to recycle old electronics from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Monday, January 21. The following items are accepted: laptops, desktops, tablets, printers, scanners, fax machines, cell phones, flat-screen TVs, flat-screen monitors, keyboards, iPods, MP3 players, Fitbits, VCRs, DVD players, cords, game systems, remotes, and other small electronics. All computer drives will be wiped clean. CRT TVs, CRT monitors, and projection screens are not accepted. The electronics recycling station is located near the penitentiary's entrance on Fairmount Avenue so that all community members, including those not interested in visiting the penitentiary, can easily recycle their items.

PAR-Recycle Works is a nonprofit that provides transitional employment to people returning to the community from prison through an environmentally responsible electronics recycling service. Serving municipalities, townships, universities, businesses, faith-based organizations and other major institutions, PAR-Recycle Works takes apart computers and other electronics and recycles them into valuable components that are sold to generate revenue to pay employees. By providing employees with skills and opportunities, PAR-Recycle Works helps to build safer communities and contribute to stronger families while saving taxpayer money.

About “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:
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.

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site is open for tours seven days a week, year-round. Admission includes “The Voices of Eastern State" Audio Tour, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi; Hands-On History interactive experiences; history exhibits; and a critically acclaimed series of artist installations.

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.

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Tweet This! MLK, arrested 30 times, showed the importance of civil disobedience for civil rights. Learn more at @EasternState's #free MLK Weekend, Jan 19-21.


2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner