I am 37 years old, with my Masters plus 75 credits- a teacher for 15 years- and, I confess, I only just read Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail this past Saturday. I'm annoyed that nowhere in my schooling was this letter shared with me or discussed. This past weekend, the Long Island Writing Project held a workshop on argument writing, based on this text. While we read the letter with a lens on argument writing and thinking about the specific techniques King used, it was hard not to get lost in the message of this letter, especially at this juncture in history.
This particular section of the letter led tears to spring to my eyes:
We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say "wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger" and your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodyness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. 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 bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience ...
Martin Luther King Jr. was 34 when he wrote this letter- younger than I am now. How did he get so wise in those 34 years? How did he get so strong, to be able to lead a movement with love and nonviolence? Of course I knew the "I Have A Dream" speech, but never stopped to think about what a gifted writer he was to craft that. Letter from Birmingham Jail, written partly in the margins of a newspaper, is an absolutely brilliant and moving piece of writing. I wish to know more about the man who wrote it- not just the stories I've been told about him.
Reading this letter has led me to many more questions about Martin Luther King Jr. than I had prior to being a participant in the workshop. What did his wife and children do and think when he was jailed? How did he first get involved with the civil rights movement? What did his parents and teachers see in him as a young child that would foretell his place in history?
One of the questions we were asked at the LIWP workshop was "How do we avoid having our students perceive of the reading and writing we ask them to do as a mechanical process to be completed or avoided? (Dr. Jane Maher) In other words, how do we get students to care about what they are reading and writing, to want to know more, to be the ones asking the questions and seeking answers instead of simply answering the questions we pose?
As I follow the news each day, I am troubled by all I don't know about our government and history. I confess to not paying very close attention to the inner workings of the government and having previously felt a sense of security that all was well. Now, I feel the need to learn more about everything- to be a more knowledgeable citizen and to be a teacher that encourages critical thinking. I want my students to ask questions and seek answers instead of simply answering the questions I've posed. I don't want to tell them what to think, but I want to read aloud texts that will help them understand another's perspective. When I read how Martin Luther King was tongue-tied trying to explain to his daughter why she couldn't attend an amusement park, I was instantly thinking about my son- the same age- and how I would feel if I had to tell him he wasn't welcome based on who he was? Such is the power of reading and writing- to move you to see life from another's vantage point. And to let that somehow change you.