6 Open Letters That Changed the World

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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.

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.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:

...I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. 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. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds. ...

Read the rest of King's famous letter, and read more about it at Wikipedia.

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:

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of agression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. ...

A Soldier's DeclarationSassoon's letter was distributed throughout the British establishment, was printed in the Bradford 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.

3. J'accuse!

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?"

J'Accuse!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:

...Here then, Mr. President, are the facts which explain how a miscarriage of justice could be made; and the moral evidence, the financial circumstances of Dreyfus, the absence of reason, his continual cry of innocence, completes its demonstration as a victim of the extraordinary imaginations of commander Du Paty de Clam, of the clerical medium in which it was found, of the hunting for the "dirty Jews", which dishonours our time.

...I accuse the offices of the war to have carried out in the press, particularly in the Flash and the Echo of Paris, an abominable campaign, to mislay the opinion and to cover their fault.

I accuse finally the first council of war to have violated the right, by condemning an defendant on a part remained secret, and I show the second council of war to have covered this illegality, by order, by committing in his turn the legal crime to discharge a culprit knowingly. ...

Read the rest at Wikisource, and more on the letter and the Dreyfus affair at Wikipedia.

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."

Flying Spaghetti MonsterIn 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:

...If the Intelligent Design theory is not based on faith, but instead another scientific theory, as is claimed, then you must also allow our theory to be taught, as it is also based on science, not on faith.

Some find that hard to believe, so it may be helpful to tell you a little more about our beliefs. We have evidence that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe. None of us, of course, were around to see it, but we have written accounts of it. We have several lengthy volumes explaining all details of His power. Also, you may be surprised to hear that there are over 10 million of us, and growing. We tend to be very secretive, as many people claim our beliefs are not substantiated by observable evidence. What these people don't understand is that He built the world to make us think the earth is older than it really is. For example, a scientist may perform a carbon-dating process on an artifact. He finds that approximately 75% of the Carbon-14 has decayed by electron emission to Nitrogen-14, and infers that this artifact is approximately 10,000 years old, as the half-life of Carbon-14 appears to be 5,730 years. But what our scientist does not realize is that every time he makes a measurement, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is there changing the results with His Noodly Appendage. We have numerous texts that describe in detail how this can be possible and the reasons why He does this. He is of course invisible and can pass through normal matter with ease.

Read the rest of the letter, and also read a bit more about FSM.

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."

Letter on CorpulenceIn 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:

...I do not recommend every corpulent man to rush headlong into such a change of diet, (certainly not), but to act advisedly and after full consultation with a physician.

My former dietary table was bread and milk for breakfast, or a pint of tea with plenty of milk and sugar, and buttered toast; meat, beer, much bread (of which I was always very fond) and pastry for dinner, the meal of tea similar to that of breakfast, and generally a fruit tart or bread and milk for supper. I had little comfort and far less sound sleep.

It certainly appears to me that my present dietary table is far superior to the former -- more luxurious and liberal, independent of its blessed effect -- but when it is proved to be more healthful, comparisons are simply ridiculous, and I can hardly imagine any man, even in sound health, would choose the former, even if it were not an enemy; but, when it is shown to be, as in my case, inimical both to health and comfort, I can hardly conceive there is any man who would not willingly avoid it. ...

Read the rest (including a PDF scan of the original pamphlet) at Archive.org, or read a bit more about William Banting at Wikipedia.

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."

Letter to HobbyistsIn 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:

The feedback we have gotten from the hundreds of people who say they are using BASIC has all been positive. Two surprising things are apparent, however, 1) Most of these "users" never bought BASIC (less than 10% of all Altair owners have bought BASIC), and 2) The amount of royalties we have received from sales to hobbyists makes the time spent on Altair BASIC worth less than $2 an hour.

Why is this? As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid?

... Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put 3-man years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product and distribute for free? The fact is, no one besides us has invested a lot of money in hobby software. We have written 6800 BASIC, and are writing 8080 APL and 6800 APL, but there is very little incentive to make this software available to hobbyists. Most directly, the thing you do is theft. ...

Read the rest (it's short), or read more about the letter at Wikipedia. So what effect did the letter have? It's hard to say whether the letter itself was responsible, but Gates is currently the third-richest man 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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December 22, 2008 - 11:30am
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