Reflections – Letter from Birmingham Jail

In April of 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. penned the Letter from Birmingham Jail proffering the need for civil disobedience to combat unjust laws. A segment of the letter responded directly to a group of white clergy members who challenged the efficacy and legality of marches and sit-ins – strategies that Dr. King used to create “constructive tension” as tools throughout the civil rights movement. Keep in mind the plight for Black-Americans in Birmingham in the 1960s was fraught with segregation, lack of access to vote, police brutality and deadly church bombings.

Perhaps given the social and political unrest, protests, and violence that has dominated our nation’s landscapes during 2020, reflections from Dr. King’s Letter would serve us well. 

In justification of his approach to redress unjust laws, he wrote “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham.” The underpinning for any nonviolent campaign was then bolstered by workshops where participants were taught how to respond to confrontations (accepting blows without retaliating) and understanding first amendment rights allowing peaceful assembly and protest. 

While these insights provide only a passing appreciation of the full consciousness of his Letter, I can’t but help draw connections between the foundations of Dr. King’s work and Paradise Valley Community College’s hopeful commitment to critical thinking in the context of positive social change. Dr. Felicia Ramirez’s leadership to embed fair-minded critical thinking in our curriculum with intellectual attributes of: accuracy, clarity, logic, relevance, significance, and fairness clearly align with nonviolent-driven social change. Obviously as an institution, we have yet to exert our full will and fortitude as positive social change agents. 

Social complexity, vexing circumstances, and buttressed intransigence should never deter relentless pursuit of critical thinking, driven remediation of unjust laws and propping social justice. During our spring 2021 convocation, I argued that while access, social and economic mobility are historically offered as the foundation of community colleges’ role in democracy, I also countered that equipping our students with lifelong critical thinking skills in order to be civically engaged is truly our greater contribution.

As we commemorate the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, I ask you to find the time to read and reflect on any of his writings. Perhaps start with the Letter from the Birmingham Jail and apply his theses to any of the political, social, racial/ethnic centers of strife facing the United States today. Look both from the protagonist and respondent perspectives. While I know that there is a vast leap from inclination to conceptual understanding to social action, one has to begin with as Dr. King wrote “…healthy discontent…channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.”