UI celebrates anniversary of MLK's 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'

BY EVAN HAFNER | APRIL 17, 2013 5:00 AM

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Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary of the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. began to write the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

In celebration, professors and students at the University of Iowa hosted a reading of King’s legendary letter.

Written on April 16, 1963, King’s letter details a strategy to resist racism in a nonviolent manner. He argues in his letter the difference of “just laws” and “unjust laws,” and the fact that people have a moral responsibility to break the laws that are unjust. King’s letter became one of the most crucial pieces of work for the American civil-rights movement.

King’s nonviolent approach was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi. This same approach remains crucial in history teachings today.

UI history Professor Stephen Vlastos spoke about the importance of history and more specifically, King’s letter.

“History has been institutionalized,” he said. “But it is so much more than that. History is something that continuously informs the present. King’s letter is deeply embedded in economical, political, and social structures.”

Since the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, issues of human rights have continued to flourish in various forms.

“The terrain of injustice has shifted since the letter, and there is no better time to read this piece of work than now,” Vlastos said.

Chaden Djalali, the dean of the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, elaborated on how citizens are responsible for maintaining values and the way in which King’s letter helps illustrate what it means to be human and persevere through struggle.

“This is a reminder to all of us here about our role as a depository for core cultural values,” he said.
Since 1847, the motto of the Iowa State Seal has read, “Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain.” Similar in his motive, but intent on taking his cause past the state and to the national level, King writes, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Djalali said King’s words and teachings are a crucial part of this country’s history.

“We have held onto these words, cherished them and studied them,” Djalali said. “And these words have made us all a little bit more human. Martin Luther King Jr. is a founding father of our country, and even though struggles continue today, we must never forget what this man had to say.”

UI students Justin Roberson, Jeannette Gabriel, Kate Kedley, and Amanda Murphy each took turns reading King’s letter.

Michael Hill, a UI assistant professor of English and African American studies, conducted a facilitated discussion to follow the reading. Hill lectured the audience on the importance of King’s work, and his motives behind using a letter to present his thoughts.

“There is such an oratorical art behind this letter,” he said. “King proves that he can really talk his behind off. His letter presents the idea of reflection and revision … He illustrates the tension between the personal and the public, and his condition at the time — the solitary moments of the soul.”

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