King’s “Letter” as Life-Changer
I don’t remember the moment when I first read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” but I quickly became a groupie.
I think it should be required reading before you can register to vote. Stick with me here– your college essay connection comes later.
The letter is particularly, though perhaps too cordially, critical of the white moderate. They/we, then as now, did not seize the historical moment.
We who had the power to loudly and unequivocally announce opposition (with our very bodies) to ongoing hate crimes, despicable marginalization and economic exclusion suffered by blacks– said nothing, or didn’t say it forcefully enough. It was not the right moment.
You have let my ass DOWN, he tells us. Your lukewarm support is worse than outright rejection.
You can hear him talking– everyone knows the sound of his voice. But are we lulled by it, or do we realize THIS IS OUR MOMENT TO BE OF USE?
THIS is the moment to say something, this very one, flying by.
Good writing stops you in your tracks.
I teach the “Letter” this time every year to the 7th grade students at the TEAK Fellowship in my personal essay writing class. They munch Cheez-its while they parse his exquisite grammar and syntax, the nuances of his message. This is not an essay of the Dream. This is the essay of necessity.
It is really about our current moment: the silence of good people is worse than anything.
The best writing contains at least one moment that causes us to turn inward, and, if listened to, can change our lives.
King’s goodwill is admirable, his anger carefully packaged into bad-ass, stinging, argumentatively impeccable prose.
If we look closely enough, we are indicted. We should not feel good reading the letter. We should have a moment when we shudder, and peel off a layer of denial.
In the letter (I’ll link it all over, in case you forget to click through) King explains the need for and process of nonviolent resistance. He wrote it from Jail (hence, title) in Birmingham, chicken-scratch handwriting (like some of my students have) on scraps of newspaper and toilet paper, and smuggled it out with his lawyer,
I repeat: scraps of toilet paper. Determined.
He was not playing, he’d get his message heard.
And he would use his imprisonment as a marketing tool, as proof in the pudding, as validating circumstance. THIS IS MY MOMENT.
WHAT is YOUR Moment?
Ask yourself what you would do
Every year I ask my students and myself, “What matters that much to you? To me?”
Use your writing, your college essay (yup!), your personal essay, to dig and ask those uncomfortable questions. And as the first part of action: reflection, self-purification, and taking a stand.
In nonviolent resistance, you put your very body on the line to protest what you believe is fundamentally unfair and unjust. And you do not budge, and you accept the consequences.
King writes, memorably: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” It’s easy to read writing that good purely for the poetry. Its a whole other thing to feel it, and live it. The poetry is meant to stir us. But being stirred was not the end goal.
THIS IS OUR MOMENT. What the F we gonna do?
Start writing, start saying something.
Begin with your moment
I tell my students to look for and zero in on “a moment” when they write their personal essays. It keeps the writing focused, specific, small.
King moves from logical to personal, reflecting on two moments when his kids asked him questions he couldn’t answer, moments when all the things he fought against haunted him at home.
“When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”
Like Kings’ children, my students often ask me searing questions I can’t answer. Or that I wish there was a good– meaning just, meaning appropriate— answer for. I’m indicted in those questions.
We sit there letting there be discomfort, and I ask them again what they think, what they have experienced, to tell us about THEIR moments.
They are 12 years old and brilliant.
How about you? What will you say?
Prompt; Your Indelible Moment
Search back in your minds for these moments that stopped you in your tracks, or taught you something fundamental, and maybe even unforgivable, about the way the world works.
Use your writing as a place to talk about it, go deep in it, and help the reader see and feel what you experienced. Give us the details, the circumstances, the larger phenomenon or problem to which your experience connects.
This is amazing material for your college essay.
And read “The Letter form Birmingham Jail” if you haven’t.
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