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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 13, 2019

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site commemorates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with three days of free community programs, Saturday, January 18 through Monday, January 20, 2020. The historic prison offers special readings of Dr. King’s 1963 landmark text “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and invites visitors to respond to its relevance in light of recent civil and human rights movements. Additional programming is available Monday, January 20, including family art making, children’s stories, musical performances, and community electronics recycling.

“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 to be arrested and incarcerated, 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.”

Readings and Discussions on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday:
Professional actors, youth, and community leaders read excerpts from Dr. 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. Readings are accompanied by an informal discussion moderated by a civil rights scholar, giving visitors an opportunity to respond to the letter’s relevance today. The readings are free and open to the public. No reservations required.

Additional activities on Monday, January 20:

Family Activities:
In partnership with the African American Museum in Philadelphia and Art Sanctuary, 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 20 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., free and open to the public. No reservations required.

Musical Performances:
Local musician Justin Griggs performs two brief sets of civil rights era music at 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. on Monday, January 20. Justin began playing the piano at the age of two. He currently plays 19 different instruments and is a student at Philadelphia’s Creative and Performing Arts High School.

Community Electronics Recycling:
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 20. The following items are accepted: laptops, desktops, tablets, printers, scanners, cell phones, flat-screen computer monitors, fax machines, cell phones, keyboards, iPods, MP3 players, Fitbits, VCRs, DVD players, cords, game systems, and remotes. All computer drives are wiped clean. Dropoff is free except for CRT monitors and TVs, flat screen TVs, air conditioners, dehumidifiers, air purifiers, and microwaves. Prices for recycling these items vary. 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.

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.

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.

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


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MLK taught us about the impact of civil disobedience in the fight for civil rights. Learn more at @EasternState's #free MLK Weekend, Jan 18-20, with readings all weekend and special activities on Jan 20.


2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner