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“We couldn’t talk about politics in high school,” my students tell me. “They said it caused too many arguments.” This experience is not universal among my students. Many of my students are activists in their communities and on campus. But as we read and write together about Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the students consider the relevance of this germinal text as it applies to and contrasts with current events:
As we begin our study of the “Letter,” I offer supporting background for kairos, the rhetorical term that foregrounds our work. Kairos is context, the rhetorical setting or occasion for writing. We watch a video of George Wallace delivering his inaugural address as the new governor of Alabama in January 1963. Wallace proclaims, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” We listen to a BBC interview with a demonstrator from the Birmingham Campaign’s Children’s Crusade, speaking of her experiences on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Birmingham actions. We watch raw footage of the demonstrations themselves, the children marching in the streets of Birmingham, their arrest, their incarceration, and barking dogs and the fire hose blasts. I offered a trigger warning for this video because the footage is so powerfully disturbing, and in offering that warning, I apologize for not alerting students to the strong words and images in the other videos.
On another day, for a discussion on the power and possibility of topic sentences, I bring in one of my t-shirts from the Occupy Wall Street Screen Printers. The t-shirt has a dot matrix photo of Dr. King’s mug shot from Birmingham. In place of his actual booking number, the placard reads “OWS 99.” The caption for the photo is taken from “Letter”: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed.” Occupy Wall Street unfolded nearly five years ago, and some of the students are not familiar with the events of the autumn of 2011. As we break apart the different images of the t-shirt’s meme, I offer details. In one class, I speak while sitting on the classroom floor, to offer a face-to-face demonstration of direct action, and to show the possibilities of thinking outside the box.
Another day, an itinerant preacher is speaking on our campus, surrounded by a crowd of students. The preacher’s style includes language that attacks the bodily integrity of women students. We can hear the preacher’s voice through the walls of our classroom, even as he speaks a half-block away with no megaphone. Later I will file a noise complaint with the police. I know from participation in Occupy Wall Street about the power of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and how those basic tenants from the Bill of Rights apply to all of us. I would not, I suggest to the students, want to keep Occupiers from speaking.
Nonetheless I apologize for the preacher’s hurtful language against women, that in 2016 such language is still considered acceptable. “We’re used to it,” the women tell me, and I express regret that conditions have not improved since my own years as an undergraduate. Subsequently some of the students decide to write about this preacher, in order to contrast his style and intention to Dr. King’s use of language. Like the itinerant preacher, Dr. King also carried the gospel wherever it was needed. We identify the passage in “Letter” where Dr. King addresses this point.
All the while, the presidential primaries and caucuses play out. We have useful discussions that connect “Letter” to the political discussions of our current time, and to the candidates that, like Dr. King, offer specific messages for specific purposes in specific settings. I have the opportunity to attend a rally for one of the candidates, and the privilege of shaking the candidate’s hand at the end of the rally. Our state’s votes are considered significant, and several of the candidates visit nearby cities and suburbs. We discuss a protest held against one of the candidates in which demonstrators blocked the main road to the town where the candidate was speaking. Students decry these tactics, suggesting that people not risk their own lives and inconvenience others just to make a point.
Working hard to practice nonjudgmental awareness in my tone of voice, I remind students of the tactics of the Children’s Crusade, and the anger that Dr. King’s methods often provoked. We agree to disagree. Days later, after a peer review session, a student who disagreed with the 2016 protest offers that Dr. King’s “Letter” inspires writers to elevate their own standards. Dr. King’s use of language, and the intent of the “Letter,” written by hand in the margins of newspapers, forces all of us to grapple with the power and possibilities of language.
Later that week the unthinkable happens. Our state makes national news for voter suppression. My husband and I had to cast provisional ballots because the state claimed that we had registered our political party as “none.” Many voters found themselves in this situation, and none of these provisional ballots were counted. I detail for the students how, when we switched our registration from New York State, we knew about the closed primary system and registered with the DMV using the party affiliation that both of us had used for our entire lives. In order to do this, I break the rule that I learned in graduate school about not disclosing party affiliation to students.
But my affiliation is not shocking to the students, and I offer additional details. For instance, some voters in the county where our institution is located stood in line for five hours, and discovered the winners of our state’s primary before they had had a chance to cast their vote. I note that my husband and I will attend a hearing at the state capitol to register protest over the suppression of our votes. We discuss the connections to “Letter.” We spend time writing. The essay is due shortly thereafter and our unit on “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” comes to an end.
The following writing prompts and videos helped to foreground our discussion as our state continues to remain in the headlines.
- Is “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” still relevant for 2016? Why do you think so? What circumstances make the “Letter” relevant? What questions arose for you in your readings of the “Letter” and what did you do to answer those questions?
- How would you translate “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to fit the circumstances of your community (either an ASU community or a home community)? What examples would you use? Why? What questions arose for you in your readings of the “Letter” and what did you do to answer those questions?
- What did you find surprising about the circumstances of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”? Why were you surprised? What questions arose for you in your readings of the “Letter” and what did you do to answer those questions?
Readings and videos
- January 16, 1963: Alabama Governor George Wallace Inaugural address
- Video from the BBC World Service: “The Children’s Crusade: Witness #31”
- Birmingham Campaign (footage from 1963)
- Statement by Alabama Clergymen
- “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (text)
- “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (audio)
A dot matrix photo of Dr. King’s mug shot from Birmingham. In place of his actual booking number, the placard reads “OWS 99.” The caption for the photo is taken from “Letter”: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
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