[Editor’s note: This column first appeared in VillageSoup Jan. 20, 2003.]

Forty years ago in April, Dr. Martin Luther King was jailed in Birmingham, Ala., following a series of protests against segregation that had focused the world’s attention on the city.

While behind bars, King wrote the now-famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in response to a call by Southern religious leaders to ease up on his push for justice. The letter, written in longhand and covering many pages, may be the best articulation of King’s insistent nonviolence. It is worth reading again on this day when some Americans pause to remember him.

The time in jail gave King’s forces an opportunity to regroup following mass arrests and the use of dogs and high-powered hoses against the demonstrators, many of whom were schoolchildren. When King was released from jail, the protests started up again with a new urgency.

I was a college sophomore at the time, far from Birmingham, though I sympathized with the struggle in the South and planned to spend the summer of 1963 working as an organizer in the black North End of Hartford, Conn.

The college chaplain called me one fine spring day and asked if I would go with him to Birmingham. His friend, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, chaplain of Yale, would be there. We would bring a message of support from the North to aid King’s courageous efforts.

We flew through the night from the airport in North Adams, Mass., to Boston, then Atlanta and finally Birmingham, where we were met by a kind man who took us to the motel that served as King’s headquarters.

We were peripheral to the noisy and impassioned planning going on around us, though we spent time with King and his associates, including Andy Young, who was standing beside King when he was gunned down in Memphis five years later.

King was shorter, darker and stockier than I had thought. He wore an open-necked shirt and was implausibly calm as co-workers, government officials, journalists and others conferred with him. The voice that had even then rung so clearly in support of equal rights was an instrument he played well even out of the pulpit.

One day we four Northerners — Coffin and his wife, Chaplain John Eusden and I — walked to a bus station lunch counter recently integrated by young protesters, and ate in the company of blacks. It was easy for us to do that. It had taken courage on the part of demonstrators and the intervention of the Kennedy administration to ensure that travelers on interstate buses, even when they stopped in Birmingham, would be treated equally.

Bill Coffin was an entertaining companion, brash and charismatic. When he believed in something, he gave no quarter to doubt. There was right and there was wrong, and those who let dogs snarl at children trying to go to school were not only wrong, but evil in his eyes. His then-wife, the daughter of pianist Arthur Rubenstein, looked demure beside him.

Another day I walked with a woman named Ella Baker, a longtime activist, down the road past the Gaston Motel. The sight of a middle-aged black woman and a skinny white boy brought cars to quick halts. Our walk did not last long.

One night the Coffins and Eusden went to a meeting, and I accompanied a young black minister and two young women to three or four black churches, outlining plans for coming demonstrations. We drove through bleak streets; I was crouched in the back seat so we would not be spotted as rabble-rousers.

The churches, though, were safe havens with wondrous, soaring music, people speaking in tongues, a primal calm despite the fearsome times. The young minister, whose name I have forgotten, was slick. I carried the names and addresses of the young women in my wallet for years.

We had come to Birmingham to participate in a rally at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a cavernous place that was bombed that September, killing four young girls. But that night it was full. I can’t remember what Bill Coffin said, though I’m sure it was rhythmic and bold.

I spoke, very briefly, offering these words written by James Baldwin that have been with me since: “If we, and I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks who must, like lovers, insist on or create the consciousness of others, do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare and achieve our country and change the history of the world.”

We left the next day, and the King-led demonstrators wrung some concessions from a reluctant city government a few weeks later.

We remember Martin Luther King for his words. But he didn’t just write the letter from the jail in Birmingham; he delivered it. We remember him best by following in his straight-ahead footsteps.

Based in Belfast, Jay Davis is a former senior reporter for VillageSoup who retired last summer.