Racial Equity

The Living Legacy of “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

February 19, 2014  • Eric L. Motley

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from The Birmingham City Jail” has been a pivotal part of the Aspen Seminar’s iconic mission to promote responsible leadership and timeless values for nearly 50 years. Join our President and CEO Walter Isaacson at the Washington National Cathedral on Feb. 24th at 7:30pm for a discussion on The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter” as he engages with US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter, American Civil Rights Leader Julian Bond, and dean of the Washington National Cathedral Rev. Gary Hall on the letter’s significance and relevance to today’s issues. This event is part of the Aspen Around Town series. 

Here, Aspen Institute Managing Director and Vice President of the Henry Crown Fellowship Program, Dr. Eric Motley, as the program’s organizer, reflects on the letter’s message.

Just before I left for college in Birmingham in 1992, Grandfather—shy, quiet, modest, and stoic—pulled me aside one last time. He was not one for talking, so, with a lot of packing left, I impatiently took my seat on the back porch for what I knew would be more silence than conversation. Handing me a few neatly folded pages from an old magazine (Life, I seem to recall), he exhorted me, “This is pretty important, and I would like for you to read it now!”  

Letter from Birmingham JailAs was the practice in our home, I read it out loud. It was written by Martin Luther King, Jr., but it was not, I quickly noted, a speech—the genre that I associated with him—but a letter.

Like most children in my small rural African-American community, I had extensively studied the Civil Rights Movement both at home and at school, and monuments to its legacy lay all around us. On the way to the Montgomery library we sometimes drove past Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. King had been pastor, and the spot where Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. Sometimes, on strolls through the park, we sipped from drinking fountains that, only a decade earlier, we would have been legally forbidden to use.

But Grandfather never talked much about those things. I have often wondered whether he thought it best for me to shape my own response, or whether he simply did not know how best to portray such momentous events as desegregation and the fight for equal rights. Despite his customary reticence on the subject, something must have moved Grandfather to give me one last life lesson from Dr. King before I left home, presumably for good.

So I read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as he listened. Then we both sat in silence for a while. I needed no words to understand how deeply my grandfather had been moved. Only on rare occasions did I see him cry, but now he quietly wiped away the tears. I carefully creased the pages, tucked them into the envelope from which he had withdrawn them, and gave them back to my grandfather.

One year later, I wrote my own letter from Birmingham, to my grandfather. Writing from the relative luxury of a college freshman’s dormitory room when compared to the spartan jail cell from which Dr. King penned his missive, I informed my grandfather that I had driven into downtown Birmingham earlier that day with my classmate Ovis and visited the very spot on which had stood the Birmingham jail where King wrote his letter in 1963. Grandmother weeks later replied to me in a return letter that grandfather was “so happy that you remembered the jail in Birmingham.” How could I forget?

My grandparents became my guardians when I was born. They raised me in a house that they in turn had inherited from their ancestors, who along with a group of fellow former slaves pooled their hard-earned savings in 1880 to buy a 560-acre former plantation that they transformed into the tight-knit community of Madison Park in Montgomery, Alabama.

By the time that I was born in 1972, Dr. King had long left Montgomery after leading the bus boycott of 1955-56 that inaugurated the civil rights movement. Seven years after the boycott, in Birmingham, the city to which I would later move to pursue my undergraduate education through a scholarship at Samford University, Dr. King was arrested on Easter weekend for his part in leading a massive civil rights rally. In his cell, fifty years ago this week, Dr. King wrote what became known as the manifesto of the civil rights movement, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he set forth his views on justice and nonviolence and challenged the consciences not just of his addressees, but of the world.

Little did I know then how widely the letter would resonate in my own life. When I first read it, I knew about the 1960s civil rights movement, but I had not been introduced to the writings of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, or Reinhold Niebuhr—all of whom influenced Dr. King’s theories and prescriptions for social change. I could never have imagined at the time that I would end up declaring philosophy and political theory as my university majors and thus gain a profound appreciation for these thinkers. The education has contributed to the great respect with which I view “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in addition to my gratefulness that its words helped to change the moral compass of the nation and thus make my higher education possible in the first place.

Since that afternoon talk with my grandfather on our back porch, much has transpired in my life, most of it far beyond the confines of Montgomery and my college town of Birmingham, although all of it would have been inconceivable without the legacy that Dr. King helped to craft in both places. I graduated from Samford, becoming student body president at a school that did not admit African-Americans until the 1960s, earned a Ph.D. from St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, served in the White House and later the State Department, and now work for the Aspen Institute.

Beginning that August summer day in 1992, when I encountered “Letter from Birmingham Jail” for the first time, I have read it every August of my life (twenty-one times), but altogether I must have perused it over 100 times.

I am drawn to this letter not just because of its role in shaping my own life story, but because my studies have proven to me how its ideas transcend the turbulent times in which it was written. Civil rights historian Diane McWhorter notes that the original conflict “was between not good and evil, but good and normal.” The brute racism that strikes us today as mass social insanity was in fact widely viewed in its time as an understandable, if not exemplary, “way of life” practiced by average, ordinary “good” people.  Accordingly, Dr. King appealed not to racial extremists, but rather to the morally moderate majority that chose to remain silent, although the specific addressees were eight fellow clergymen from Alabama who had earlier written to him pleading that he call off planned boycotts and other demonstrations in an effort to seek a gradual end to discrimination.

What often goes overlooked in studies that situate the letter solely within the context of the crisis besetting the Deep South in the 1960s is how King brilliantly taps the rich reservoir of his liberal arts education. Drawing on Augustine, he emphasizes the dialectical and ambivalent character of human nature, characterized by creative impulses in tension with destructive impulses. As a student of Reinhold Niebuhr, he understood the paradox of “Moral Man and Immoral Society” and, like his teacher, he attacked what Niebuhr called “national innocence” as a self-righteous delusion:  “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” And the intellectual springs from which he drew inspiration were not just philosophical, but also poetic, theological, historical, and anthropological. He possessed a profound sense of history’s irony, humanity’s anxiety, and life’s tragedy. Yet he never lost hope or faith in history or people.

The letter’s power to transform readers manifests itself more than 50 times each year at the Aspen Seminar, at which young professionals, business leaders, and others from all walks of life  read, reflect on, and discuss timeless texts by, among others, Locke, Hobbes, Aristotle, Plato, and Simone de Beauvoir, and, of course, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” We at the Aspen Institute, which has been conducting these seminars since 1951, encourage participants to pursue journeys of self-examination with the goal of living a good life based on principles and values rather than wealth and celebrity. Time and time again the letter proves to be one of the most compelling texts that our Aspen Institute participants study. It reminds them that the struggles of men and women to be free and to realize their own human capacity has yet to be resolved and that Dr. King’s ideas scribbled on newspaper and smuggled out of a jail are as relevant today as they were a half-century ago. The letter reminds us all that while much has been achieved, and that many African-Americans like me have benefited greatly from its legacy, significant social problems that remain unaddressed or unsolved still cry out for our involvement and determination to make a difference. It calls us all to “step up.”

Cleaning out the bedside drawer of my grandfather in 1998, I discovered the letter from Samford University congratulating me on my admission in 1992, along with letters that I sent from Birmingham, tabulations, deeds, and farming charts. But what most surprised and delighted me was a faded yellow envelope containing a letter from Martin Luther King. 

I will return to Alabama to participate in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s city-wide 50th anniversary commemoration of the historic events that took place in Birmingham in 1963. I will speak to several hundred high school students and citizens from across the state.  It is an imposing task, but I will do my best to remind them that, even if their backgrounds or personal stories might threaten to handicap them, we are all a part of “an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” I will also remind them, as I reflect on my own personal journey, that it is also a pretty good thing to have a dream, even (or especially) one from a seemingly remote, distant past.

*This blog post was originally published on April 16, 2013.