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10 famous open letters that caught the public’s imagination

Open letter
Open letters can be a powerful ways to make a point. Below are some of the most famous

A Dutch dad’s heartbreaking open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin following the death of his daughter Elsemiek de Borst on doomed Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 went viral after touching the hearts of people around the world.

Hans de Borst wrote the letter, below, after Elsemiek was killed with 297 others when the Malaysian Airlines jet was blown out of the sky over Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

English version – made by Lennart Peeters. Thank you very much mister Putin, leaders of the separatists or the Ukraine…

Posted by Hans de Borst on Sunday, July 20, 2014

Open letters can be extremely effective way of making your ideas known — especially in the modern day, when the potential audience is unlimited thanks to the power of the internet.

But they have been used throughout history to make important points, some of which have changed the world, others of which have hit headlines for other reasons.

Here we look at ten other open letters that have captured the public’s imagination — and, in some cases, changed the world.

10 Martin Luther King Jr’s letter from Birmingham Jail

This letter, also known as The Negro Is Your Brother, was an open letter written by civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr to his fellow clergymen from inside Birmingham jail, Alabama, in April 1963.

Luther King had been incarcerated there after taking part in marches against racism and racial segregation in the city.

The letter, written on a newspaper and smuggled out the jail by his lawyers before being published, backed the civil rights movement’s nonviolent resistance to racism and said people were morally responsible for breaking laws that were unjust.

The letter told of his hope that “the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away”.

It was extensively reprinted and helped change the course of the American civil rights fight and helped end racial segregation and discrimination.

9 USA Boxing to Mike Tyson

This open letter from USA Boxing to Mike Tyson was released in October 2013 to try and stop the former sports star from poaching young talent from the potential squad for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

The letter claimed by signing up their young athletes to professional contracts at a young age Tyson was undermining the US Olympic Boxing Team and taking away vital resources that help the youngsters develop as boxers, teach them values and a moral code, and the skills to continue to work after their boxing careers end.

However, the letter didn’t go down well in all corners. ESPN called it “sanctimonious”, “righteous” and “indignant”.

Tyson also issued his own response calling the letter “erroneous” and accused them of “disrespect” and of using his name for publicity rather than contacting him directly.

8 Sinead O’Connor to Miley Cyrus

Irish singer Sinead O’Connor wrote an open letter to new kid on the block Miley Cyrus after the 20-year-old said her highly-sexual Wrecking Ball video was inspired by Sinead’s song Nothing Compares 2 U.

Sinead said she wanted to warn Miley she was being ‘pimped’ by the music industry.

She said: “I am extremely concerned for you that those around you have led you to believe, or encouraged you in your own belief, that it is in any way ‘cool’ to be naked and licking sledgehammers in your videos.”

Furore erupted after the letter was released, with singer of The Dresden Dolls Amanda Palmer responding with her own open letter to Sinead O’Connor saying she was “off target” as Miley was making the decisions to be sexual herself.

Sinead then published a string of hard-hitting follow-up letters to Miley explaining her position.

7 Siegfried Sassoon to British military leadership

Sassoon was an English poet, writer and soldier during the First World War. In 1917 he wrote an open letter to the British military leadership protesting against the continuation of war.

Titled Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration, it was published in the Press and read out in the British Parliament — causing a massive hoo-ha.

Some critics said Sassoon had committed treason by encouraging defiance against the military leadership.

In it he said: “I believe that [the war] is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

He added: 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.”

Shortly afterwards he was deemed mentally ill and sent to a mental institution to be treated for ‘shell shock’.

6 Emile Zola to Felix Faure (President of France)

One of the most famous open letters of all time, writer Emile Zola’s letter entitled J’Accuse! (I accuse!) was written to then President of France Felix Faure in January 1898.

It accused Faure and his government of anti-Semitism and the unlawful jailing of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Army officer, for espionage and treason on questionable evidence.

The letter was published on the front page of French newspaper L’Aurore. It played a big role in shaping public opinion over what is today regarded as a major miscarriage of justice.

Zola fled to England after its publication to avoid being jailed when he was found guilty of libel.

5 Bill Gates’ Open Letter to Hobbyists

Gates’ open letter to computer hobbyists was written in 1976 — condemning the theft of computer software.

Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft and today the richest man in the world, said hobbyists using software without paying it would harm the computer industry over the long term.

He was prompted to write the letter after people kept copying his firm’s Altair BASIC software without him receiving any returns.

Gates said it would put people off investing time and money in developing software in the future — and “stop good software being written”.

He said: “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? Is this fair?”.

The letter was published in the Homebrew Computer Club Newsletter as well as a string of other magazines.

It prompted a huge debate on how software is developed and sold, paving the way for the computer industry we see today.

4 Mahatma Gandhi’s advice to Hitler

Mahatma Gandhi wrote his open letter to Hitler in the build-up to World War II — calling him the “one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state”.

He asked him to follow in his example in deliberately shunning war.

The letter never reached Hitler after the British government intervened — and war broke out less than six weeks later when Germany invaded Poland.

3 Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public

The letter on corpulence, a letter to the public written in booklet form, was penned by undertaker William Banting after he lost weight by switching to a low-carbohydrate diet.

He had been obese when he found out about the diet through a visit do a doctor. The booklet was basically a diet book, which included a plan on how to lose weight like he did.

It also told of other ways he’d tried to lose weight in the past and failed.

The pamphlet became very popular for many years and laid the path for the diet books of today.

2 The family of Emmett Till to Lil’ Wayne

Hip-hop star Lil’ Wayne was forced to apologise after offending the family of Emmett Till, a 14 year old murdered in Mississippi after allegedly flirting with a white woman, with one of his lyrics.

Wayne likened Till’s beating to sex on the remix of Future’s song Karate Chop.

The family were so outraged they penned a two-page letter to Wayne accusing him of ‘destroying the preservation and legacy of Emmett Till’s memory and name’.

It added: “How would you feel if your child was beaten beyond recognition, body mutilated and disfigured, torchered for hours, unnecssarily shot after being BEATEN TO DEATH, lynched in barbed wire weighted down by a 70 pound cotton gin fan and tossed in a river with intent to never be found again?”.

Lil wayne was dropped from an advertising campaign with Mountain Dew after fury erupted over the controversy.

The lyric was then removed from the track and Wayne issued an apology, although it was rejected by Emmett Till’s relatives.

1 Niels Bohr to the UN

Niels Bohr was one of the the 20th century pre-eminent physicists, winning the Nobel Prize in 1922 for his work on quantum theory and the structure of the atom.

He wrote his open letter to the UN in June 1950, calling for greater international cooperation and monitoring of nuclear energy.

He said that “in placing formidable means of destruction in the hands of man, presented our whole civilization with a most serious challenge”.

He called for a centralised committee to be set up to keep tabs on work done on nuclear energy. The letter led to the setting up of the Atomic Energy Agency.

Have you ever written an open letter or read an interesting one? Let us know in the comments section below.


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