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The Living Legacy of 'Letter From Birmingham Jail'

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Writing for the Aspen Institute's Aspen Idea blog, Dr. Eric L. Motley, a vice president at the institute, explains the power of "Letter From Birmingham Jail," which he read for the first time with his grandfather before he left home for college in 1992.

Beginning that August summer day in 1992, when I encountered "Letter from Birmingham Jail" for the first time, I have read it every August of my life (twenty-one times), but altogether I must have perused it over 100 times.

I am drawn to this letter not just because of its role in shaping my own life story, but because my studies have proven to me how its ideas transcend the turbulent times in which it was written. Civil rights historian Diane McWhorter notes that the original conflict "was between not good and evil, but good and normal." The brute racism that strikes us today as mass social insanity was in fact widely viewed in its time as an understandable, if not exemplary, "way of life" practiced by average, ordinary "good" people. Accordingly, Dr. King appealed not to racial extremists, but rather to the morally moderate majority that chose to remain silent, although the specific addressees were eight fellow clergymen from Alabama who had earlier written to him pleading that he call off planned boycotts and other demonstrations in an effort to seek a gradual end to discrimination.


Read Dr. Eric L. Motley's entire piece at the Aspen Idea.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

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