Letter from Birmingham City Jail, by Martin Luther King, Limited Editions Club (2008)

As a sometimes over-exuberant lover of fine press books, I often wax rhapsodic about works that you see here on Books and Vines. Be it decades old editions from classic fine presses of yesteryear, or more recent publications by today’s fine presses, there is something to enjoy about almost all works that stem from centuries old traditional book-making techniques, especially those well-designed and executed. Occasionally, works turn out to be nearly perfect representations of the fine press craft. As a consumer of fine press books, I do not have a template of traits that all finely made books must fall within to be considered great. Large or small in format, profusely illustrated or not illustrated at all, elaborately bound or simply bound, a fine press work can reflect the pinnacle of the craft regardless of such characteristics. However, certain attributes must be present for any work to have a chance to reach such heights.  Well thought out design, excellent type choice and presswork, and wonderful paper (usually hand-made, or mould-made) are almost always present. When illustrated, the nearly perfect fine press book has illustrations that are printed flawlessly using traditional methods, do not overwhelm the text or type, and blend with the story in a holistic and complementary way.

As many of you know, the Limited Editions Club (LEC) had an extremely long and successful run, publishing nearly 600 finely done books from 1930 through 2010. During this time, many (if not most) of the greatest book designers in the world, the greatest fine presses in the world, and the greatest illustrators/artists in the world worked with first George Macy (succeeded by his wife Helen) and then Sidney Shiff (succeeded by his wife Jeanne) to create fine editions of great works. As one would expect, there are many opinions on which of the LEC oeuvre reach the summit of the fine press pantheon.  My opinion is that both the Macy era and Shiff era resulted in a number of works that reach this level, though they are widely different in scope and intent. Macy’s focus was generally on traditional ‘core canon’ classics and were designed and executed within the construct of pretty tight budgets so to be affordable within a reasonably low yearly subscription cost to his 1500 subscribers. For a number of reasons, Shiff’s focus turned to producing livre d’ artiste editions of a much grander scale with much lower limitation levels and higher costs. Importantly, Shiff also expanded beyond the traditional core canon, giving representation to many emerging modern classics and modern artists. This was especially true when it came to African American writers and artists. Maya Angelou, Jacob Lawrence, Zora Neale HurstonRichard Wright, Margaret Walker, Benny Andrews, Betye SaarLangston HughesPhoebe BeasleyLéopold Sédar Senghor (Senegalese, not American), Lois Mailou JonesJohn Thomas BiggersElizabeth Catlett and Derek Walcott are among those Shiff published in beautiful editions. A few of these rise to my ‘nearly perfect’ level, including the 2008 edition of Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, with illustrations by the preeminent African-American artist Faith Ringgold.

The LEC Letter from Birmingham City Jail is special for many reasons.  Obviously, the text is historically important, one of the great texts of American history, written by a towering figure in American history. In this edition, the text, set in Monotype Garamond by Michael and Winifred Bixler of the estimable Press and Letterfoundry of Michael and Winifred Bixler, displays wonderfully. As you will see below, the spacing is excellent (margins, lettering and lines). It is eminently readable with, to my taste, a perfect level of impression on the page. The paper is hand made and comes from a small private paper mill in Spain. What a feel it has to it! It has a splendid texture and is soft and luxurious, yet strong. It provides an excellent palette for the type and illustrations. The binding, by Jovonis Bookbindery, is appropriately simple, yet beautiful.  It is done in full red linen over boards with a gilt titled morocco label inset to front cover and is encased in a like bound, ultra-suede lined solander box with gilt titled morocco label inset to spine. The illustration by Ms. Ringgold consist of eight serigraph prints, which were printed by by Curlee Raven Holton at EPI. Each print was hand-pulled and contains an average of 13 colors per print!

Speaking of the illustrations, they are magnificent. Ms. Ringgold tells us in her note within the edition:

In my way I have tried to visualize the story of Dr. King’s Letter From Birmingham City Jail with these eight serigraphs. What he has to say about the life and struggle of black people in America is a treatise on freedom and justice and a model for democracy in the world.

I can imagine that attempting to illustrate Letter from Birmingham City Jail must have been a daunting challenge: How to complement the work without intruding on it? How to add to the understanding of it without cheapening it? How to assist in establishing an emotional resonance to the tome without distracting from the message? Ms. Ringgold rose to this challenge, creating illustrations which perfectly encapsulate the context (the how, what and why) of Dr. King’s words. The illustrations make you think, helping you to understand Dr. King’s words at a more visceral level. For example, see Sample Illustration 6 below, which shows a white congregation in church with scenes of police brutality seen through stained glass windows. This is powerful imagery and perfectly illustrates the hypocrisy Dr. King saw when he said “Who worships here? Who is their God?“. Despite the unfortunate and unjust topic they portray, the illustrations convey a sense of technical beauty that was completely unexpected to me. For example, see Sample Illustration #7 below, entitled ‘Slavery.’  The picture represents Dr. King’s reminding us that “for more than two centuries our foreparents labored in this country without wages.” Ms. Ringgold’s illustration highlights that very unjust fact poignantly, yet does so with a beauty that keeps your eye on the canvas soaking in the image. This is great illustration, great art and is a wonderful example of what illustration in fine press books is meant to be.

Ms. Ringgold is professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego where she taught art from 1987 until 2002. Professor Ringgold is the recipient of more than 75 awards including 22 Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts Degrees. She has received many fellowships and grants, including from the National Endowment For the Arts, The La Napoule Foundation, The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, The New York Foundation For the Arts, The American Association of University Women, and The Creative Artists Public Service Award. Ms. Ringgold’s art has been exhibited in museums and galleries in the USA, Canada, Europe, Asia, South America, the Middle East, and Africa. Her art is included in many private and public art collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Museum of American Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The Boston Museum of Fine Art, The Chase Manhattan Bank Collection, The Baltimore Museum, Williams College Museum of Art, The High Museum of Fine Art, The Newark Museum, The Phillip Morris Collection, The St. Louis Art Museum and The Spencer Museum. Ms. Ringgold is represented by ACA Gallery in New York City.

Ms. Ringgold is also an accomplished author. Her first published book, Tar Beach, “a book for children of all ages”, was published by Random House in 1991 and has won more than 30 awards including a Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King award for the best illustrated children’s book of 1991.  Ms. Ringgold has completed many other children’s books (as author or illustrator), including Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad In The SkyMy Dream of Martin Luther KingTalking to Faith Ringgold, (an autobiographical interactive art book for children of all ages), The Invisible Princess, an original African American Fairy Tale based on the quilt Born in a Cotton Field, all published by Random House. If a Bus Could Talk; The Story of Ms. Rosa Parks won the NAACP’s Image Award 2000 and was published by Simon and Schuster. O Holy NightThe Three Witches, and Bronzeville Boys and Girls are from Harper Collins. Ms. Ringgold’s latest children’s book is Henry O. Tanner: His Boyhood Dream Comes True published by Bunker Hill Publishing. We Flew Over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold, Ringgold’s first adult book was published by Little, Brown in 1995 and has been re-released by Duke University Press.

Ms. Ringgold has a foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, called the Anyone Can Fly Foundation whose objective is to:

Expand the art establishment’s canon to include master artists of the African Diaspora and to introduce the Great Masters of African American Art and their art traditions to kids as well as adult audiences. 

An extremely worthy objective, and one in which work like represented in this edition can only help to re-enforce. I would also like to point you to Faith Ringgold’s blog (http://faithringgold.blogspot.com), which is is excellent and well worth following. You can also follow her on Facebook here.

Before jumping immediately to pictures of this seminal edition we should reflect on some of Dr. King’s words. In reading Letter from Birmingham City Jail for the first time in decades, I was astounded at how positive Dr. King was. These are not the words of a reactionary or revolutionist; instead the words of someone who recognized the promise of America and worked tirelessly to bring that promise to people that had been denied such.  Here are some of my favorite quotes from my re-reading of this edition, starting with one of the most famous.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

In the following, Dr. King defines the steps in non-violent campaigns:

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: (1) collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, (2) negotiation, (3) self-purification, and (4) direct action.

Dr. King’s writing often pulls from his deep well of classical knowledge, here explaining why sometimes nonviolent direct action is needed:

Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals  could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

And:

History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.

Patience can only last so long:

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the blackness of corroding despair.

More use of classical learning to make his case:

One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”

Now what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.

The following from Dr. King follows a direct path from Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience:

One who breaks an unjust law most do it openly, lovingly…, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.

Wisdom follows, reminds me of the adage “with friends like these”:

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

After praising the early Church and Christians for their convictions, Dr. King shows his frustration with churches of the time, with much turning out as he predicts:

The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is often the arch-supporter of status quoBut the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

Positiveness runs throughout, as does his ultimate belief in America:

I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle…We will reach the goal of freedom…because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here…We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

And:

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, and thus, carrying our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

While reminding all of their obligations:

Over the last few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. So I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.

On this holiday weekend, which in America celebrates the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. all who can owe it to themselves to read his Letter from Birmingham City Jail. It is America at its best.

I will close this article with some words from Ms. Ringgold, who says in her note within this edition:

The further we are from the turbulent 1960’s the more magnificent the life and work of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. becomes. How lucky we are that fate destined him to be born, grow up here and live out his American dream in the birthplace of democracy.

How true that is.

This is one marvelous fine press edition. Jeanne Shiff does show availability on her website, I would encourage you to check in with her on availability and pricing.

About the Edition

  • Designed by Michael and Winifred Bixler
  • Eight serigraph prints by Faith Ringgold
  • Serigraph prints were printed by Curlee Raven Holton (Executive Director, Driskell Center) at EPI
  • Each print is hand-pulled and contains an average of 13 colors per print
  • Set in Monotype Garamond by the Bixler’s
  • Hand made paper from a small private paper mill in Spain
  • Bound by Jovonis Bookbindery in full red linen over boards with gilt titled morocco label inset to front cover
  • Encased in a like bound, ultra-suede lined solander box with gilt titled morocco label inset to spine
  • Afterword by Dr. C. T. Vivian
  • Limited to 420 copies, signed by Faith Ringgold

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

{Ed. Note: Special thanks to Faith Ringgold for permission to show these images, and to her assistant, Grace Matthews, who was absolutely wonderful (and quick) and handling my requests.}

Letter from Birmingham City Jail, Limited Editions Club, Solander
Letter from Birmingham City Jail, Limited Editions Club, Solander
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Book in Solander
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Book in Solander
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Spine and Covers
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Spine and Covers
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Front Cover
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Front Cover
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Cover
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Cover
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Frontispiece and Title Page
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 – Frontispiece (A letter from Martin Luther King, Jr.”while confined here in Birmingham City Jail” MLK) and Title Page. (c) Faith Ringgold 2007
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Copyright Page
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Copyright Page
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1 (Ms. Ringgold)
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1 (A Note from Ms. Ringgold)
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2 (Beginning of Dr. King's text)
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2 (Beginning of Dr. King’s text)
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #2
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #2
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2 (Four Little Girls Bombed in a Church – “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here” MLK). (c) Faith Ringgold 2007
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #3 (For Whites Only – “Funtown is Closed to Colored Children” MLK).          (c) Faith Ringgold 2007
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #4 (Brown verses Board of Education 1954 - "White Mothers...on Television screaming Nigger, Nigger, Nigger!"  MLK). (c) Faith Ringgold 2007
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #4 (Brown verses Board of Education 1954 – “White Mothers…on Television screaming Nigger, Nigger, Nigger!” MLK). (c) Faith Ringgold 2007
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #5 (The Right to Vote – “There are counties without a single negro registered to vote” MLK). (c) Faith Ringgold 2007
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #3
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #6 (Police Brutality Viewed through Stained Glass Window – “Who worships here? Who is their God?”  MLK). (c) Faith Ringgold 2007
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #3
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #3
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #4
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #7 (Slavery – “For more than two centuries our foreparents labored in this country without wages” MLK). (c) Faith Ringgold 2007
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #8 (Montgomery Bus Boycott - "My feet is tired but my soul is rested" MLK). (c) Faith Ringgold 2007
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #8 (Montgomery Bus Boycott – “My feet is tired but my soul is rested” MLK). (c) Faith Ringgold 2007
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #4 (Afterword)
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #4 (Afterword)
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #4
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #4
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Colophon
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Limited Editions Club, Colophon

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