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Action Forum Participants Connect to Message in “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

July 30, 2013

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a seminal text used as an integral part of the Aspen Seminar, and many Aspen Institute fellowship programs. Participants at the Aspen Leaders Action Forum continue to take the letter to heart. As seen in the video above, during the Forum’s kickoff lunch on July 29th, former Wofford College President and Aspen Institute Senior Moderator Ben Dunlap and various Fellows quoted parts of King’s letter that resonated with specific projects they are pursuing.

The theme of the letter’s lasting impact continued later in the day in the form of a roundtable discussion. Moderated by Dunlap, Fellows from the Aspen Global Leadership Network held a wide-ranging discussion on what King would say if he wrote a similar letter in modern times, and why his letter — written 50 years ago this year — is still significant today. 

Here are some of the observations made during the roundtable discussion:

  • King’s letter was filled with imagery, and it was imagery that brought the cruelty of segregation to the larger society.
  • If King were to write a modern version of his Birmingham letter today, it might be one addressed to the world, instead of one focused on the US.
  • Today’s biggest issue in the US is not one of racial inequality as much as it is economic inequality. Just before his death, King had transitioned his focus from racism to a fight against poverty, and the issue remains pervasive today.
  • Like King believed, some of the biggest barriers we face in addressing economic injustice today still include our fear of having to sacrifice or lose something in order to help the society at large, our inclination as a capitalist society to place an importance on profit rather than providing economic opportunity for all, and the hesitation of those inside government to make “real” changes.