Letters from Prison

Martin Luther King Jr. looks out the window of his cell at the Birmingham City Jail. The photo was taken by the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker in October 1967, when both leaders served time in the Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham. (UPI)

When she saw many references to MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on social media recently,  Anne K. Knafl, Bibliographer for Religion, Philosophy, and Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago Library, compiled the following sources of that transcendent letter as well as other letters from prison. We thought our readers might enjoy having these resources as well. 

Hover over the text for the hyperlink. 

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from A Birmingham Jail draft,” Albert Burton Boutwell Papers, 1949-1967, Collection Number 264, Archives Department, Birmingham Public Library, Alabama. Published, print versions are available at the University of Chicago here.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Prisoner for God: Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Ebehard Bethge, translated by Reginald H. Fuller. (New York: Macmillianm 1966).
  • “Prison Interviews with Angela Y. Davis”, on www.versobooks.com, excerpted from If They Come In the Morning…: Voices of Resistance. (New York, NY: Third Press, 1971
  • Oscar Wilde, De profunis. 2nd edition. London: Methuen, 1905. (T. and A. Constable) From HathiTrust.
  • Reflections in prison: voices from the South African liberation struggle. Edited by Mac Maharaj (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002). Print copy from our collection.
  • The Prisons Foundation: open access distribution of creative works by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women.

James Baldwin among the Philosophers

Image from 2LeafPress.

Curated by University of Chicago Bibliographer for Religion, Philosophy, & Jewish Studies Anne Knafl, the exhibit “James Baldwin Among the Philosophers” is on display Sept. 25, 2017 – Dec. 31, 2017 in the Regenstein 4th Floor Reading Room and will remain online permanently.


James Baldwin’s work is widely recognized for its religious overtones and influences as well as for its critiques of racism and heterosexual norms. This exhibit displays books and essays by James Baldwin, alongside philosophical works that engage his work.


Said Knafl of the exhibit’s genesis, “I have wanted to mount an exhibit about James Baldwin since the release of the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” in 2016. Baldwin’s works are known for their religious imagery but, given his complicated relationship to the church, I was curious about his philosophical influences and influence. I found a number of works that situated Baldwin in American philosophical traditions. In the exhibit, I juxtapose these with early editions of Baldwin’s works from the Library’s collection.”


Baldwin rose to prominence after the publication of his first novel in 1953, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical account of his childhood. By the 1960s, Baldwin had become the most recognizable African-American writer in the U.S. and the de facto spokesperson for the Civil Right Movement, a title he opposed.

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us. But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them.

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time