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The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From The Birmingham City Jail”

March 14, 2014  • Sarai Johnson, Guest Blogger

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” has been a pivotal part of the Aspen Seminar for more than 50 years. The Aspen Institute recently commemorated Dr. King’s legacy at the Washington National Cathedral with a discussion led by Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson about how it applies today. The talk featured some of the country’s greatest thinkers: civil rights leader Julian Bond, US Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway, Washington National Cathedral Dean Rev. Gary Hall, and Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter. The discussion, “The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.”s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail'”, is part of the Aspen Around Town Series. See photos and video from the event on Aspen Around Town’s website.

See a few highlights from the speakers about King’s letter, civil rights, and the level of complacency in today’s society.  

“I’ve been fond of saying that I don’t believe there’s such a thing as gay rights, they’re just rights. There’s not such a thing as black rights, they’re just rights. We all have these rights. And I knew too many gay people from my earlier years, my high school years, my college years, people who worked with me in the movement, that I couldn’t say to them, ‘Well, thanks for helping me, appreciate it, but I’m not going to help you.’ Of course I couldn’t say that, and I so felt bound to do it, so I did it and I was glad to do what I could.”

“While not everyone, I think, always has to be willing to suffer the consequences, one of the powerful aspects of suffering the consequences for disobedience is it tests the depth of our commitment to the cause. It’s easy for any of us to say, ‘Well, that law shouldn’t be enforced,’ and ‘I don’t like that one,’ and ‘I’m on the left and I don’t like this one,’ and ‘I’m on the right and I don’t like that one.’ We can all say that in conversation, but to risk for it, to go out and take a chance, I think is where the commitment is really tested.”

WATCH: Natasha Tretheway on the literary elements of King’s letter:

“I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to compare the prose to poetry in the letter. One of the things that I thought about, reading it again, is on the one level, how you read it for its sense, for its meaning, but on another level, when you read it again and again, how you begin to hear it, and you hear instead the cadences, the sonnet textures, the lyricism, and the rhythm of syntax, and imagery and figurative language, that can make the mind leap to a new apprehension of things.”

WATCH: Rev. Gary Hall on empathy and complacency in society:

“One of the moments that really touches me in this letter is where he says to their ministers, ‘You commended the police for keeping the peace, I can’t really join you in that, and I’m disappointed that you didn’t turn around and commend the black community for its persevearance and peacefulness.’ And I think the thing that I feel the most danger about being complacent in is I tend to empathize with the people I know, and I tend not to have enough engagement with the people I don’t know. So the issue of “who are we” in this culture, and how do we embrace and celebrate our differences, and how do we come to know each other in a way where we can really empathize with each other, I think we’ve become very complacent in our divisions. And I think King is calling us to a really much more comprehensive vision of not only Christianity but what it means to be an American, and this letter spurs me to move out of my complacent comfort zone.”

What the full session video of this event on the National Cathedral website.