Epistolary history is full of open letters, those that are written with the intent that they’ll be read by a wide audience. Here we’ve collected six of the best (or at least, most influential) open letters of all time.
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1. Letter From Birmingham Jail
Writer: Martin Luther King, Jr.
Recipients: “Fellow Clergymen”
Key statements: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”; “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama after a nonviolent protest against segregation in 1963. On April 16, 1963, King wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, which was subsequently printed in The Christian Century, The Atlantic Monthly, and eventually King’s book Why We Can’t Wait. Running to eleven pages, King’s letter was a response to the Statement by Alabama Clergymen in which prominent Alabama clergy (including a bunch of Bishops and a Rabbi) called for demonstrations against segregation to stop, and for the issue to be resolved in the courts. King wrote:
Read the rest of King’s famous letter.
2. A Soldier's Declaration
Writer: Siegfried Sassoon
Recipients: British military leadership
Key statement: “I believe that [World War I] is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”
In 1917, Siegfried L. Sassoon was a British poet, serving as a soldier in the First World War. Sassoon served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers in France and Palestine, earning the Military Cross for his valor under fire. After being wounded twice, he was put on leave to convalesce. When called to return to the trenches, Sassoon refused. He wrote:
Sassoon’s letter was distributed throughout the British establishment, was printed in theBradford Pioneer on July 27, 1917, and reprinted in the London Times four days later. The letter caused a great stir, including a public reading in the British House of Commons. Sassoon was soon declared mentally ill (thus unfit to face court-martial), and was sent to a hospital to be treated for shell shock. Read the full text of Sassoon’s letter (it’s pretty short) at Wikisource.
Writer: Émile Zola
Recipients: Félix Faure (President of France)
Key statement: “How could one hope that a council of war would demolish what a council of war had done?”
The Dreyfus Affair was a political scandal in France in the late nineteenth century. To make a very long story short, Captain Alfred Dreyfus (a Jew) was convicted of treason and punished, based on questionable evidence. Later evidence showed that the man who actually committed the crime was Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, but Esterhazy was acquitted, and exculpatory evidence that would have cleared Dreyfus was ignored by the court. (Read much more about the affair at Wikipedia.)
Writer Émile Zola rallied public attention to Dreyfus’s cause, in an open letter with the huge headline “J’accuse!” printed on January 13, 1898 on the front page of Parisian paper L’Aurore. Zola accused the French establishment of anti-Semitism in its treatment of Dreyfus. Since then, “J’accuse” (literally “I accuse”) has become a popular term expressing outrage. Zola wrote:
Read the rest at Wikisource.
4. Open Letter to the Kansas School Board
Writer: Bobby Henderson
Recipients: Kansas School Board
Key statements: “I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster”; “You may be interested to know that global warming, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are a direct effect of the shrinking numbers of Pirates since the 1800s.”
In 2005, the Kansas School Board held a series of evolution hearings about whether the theory of Intelligent Design should be taught alongside evolution in classrooms. The hearings sparked a massive public debate, and for a time the Board did approve new science standards that included the teaching of Intelligent Design in the classroom. Without getting into the political or theological content of that argument, “concerned citizen” Bobby Henderson entered the fray with a public letter speaking of his own faith, The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Henderson wrote:
Read the rest of the letter.
5. Letter on Corpulence
Writer: William Banting
Recipients: “The Public,” specifically: fat people
Key statement: “Although no very great size or weight, still I could not stoop to tie my shoe, so to speak, nor attend to the little offices humanity requires, without considerable pain and difficulty, which only the corpulent can understand.”
In 1863, William Banting, an overweight English undertaker, committed himself to a low-carbohydrate diet. He lost 35 pounds over the course of 38 weeks. He wrote about his diet in an open letter called Letter on Corpulence, proposing a diet of four meals a day, including proteins, greens, fruit, and dry wine, and eschewing foods high in carbohydrates and fat. His diet was so popular that to bant became a verb meaning to diet, and his diet is seen as a precursor to modern diets like the Atkins Diet. Banting wrote:
Read the rest (including a PDF scan of the original pamphlet) at Archive.org.
6. Open Letter to Hobbyists
Writer: Bill Gates
Recipients: computer hobbyists (specifically, those in the Homebrew Computer Club)
Key statement: “The fact is, no one besides us has invested a lot of money in hobby software.”
In 1976, Bill Gates was concerned because his “Micro-Soft” software was being copied for free and even being resold without royalties. Gates and his compatriots had written a version of the BASIC programming language which was popular with computer hobbyists (notably those running the MITS Altair computer). But there was no effective way to copy-protect software in those days, and hobbyists were copying Micro-Soft’s BASIC left and right. Gates decided to strike back with all the force he could muster: he wrote them a letter. Gates wrote:
Read the rest (it’s short). So what effect did the letter have? It’s hard to say whether the letter itself was responsible, but Gates is currently one of the richest men in the world. I guess people started paying for software.
If you liked this article, check out The Open Letter-Off of ’07, about the spate of open letters written in response to a letter by Steve Jobs to the music industry.
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