Samford University added Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to the curriculum’s required readings.
For the occasion, Samford’s Howard College of Arts and Sciences presented a two-day panel discussion titled “Where Do We Go From Here” on April 16 and 17. Samford’s Core Texts Program Director Jason Wallace hosted the events.
A faculty and student panel discussed the letter’s relevance today as well as America’s current race relations.
Wilson Fallin, Tondra Loder-Jackson, Jennifer Speights-Binet, LeeAnn Reynolds, Jonathan Bass, and Arthur Price spoke. Price is the pastor for the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Fifty-five years ago, Price said Klu Klux Klan members bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church. They placed 22 sticks of dynamite outside the church. The explosion killed four girls.
“Church is a place that is supposed to be a sanctuary, safe haven, and secure for your children. Nobody thinks about when they send their children to church, they will come home dead,” Price said.
Despite being written 55 years ago, Price said King’s letter still resonates today.
“This letter strikes at the core of what’s going on today,” he said. It wasn’t that long ago when people had different ideologies that were so extreme that they snuffed out children’s lives to make their point.”
Even though African-Americans lives have improved, Price said many lack education and remain unemployed or imprisoned.
Besides these struggles, Price said African-Americans endure crime and racial economic inequality. They also suffer the most HIV/AIDS cases.
“Our children are killing each other over scraps. I’m tired of praying myself back into a peaceful place when I know there is no peace,” he said.
While the U.S. obsesses over Syria’s atrocities, Price said America ignores African-American men being shot.
Price said Japan and Great Britain killed zero of its citizens last year. Germany killed two. He said American police killed 1,200 people.
“I’m tired of turning on the news and seeing another brother shot and killed by the police,” he said. “The greatest threat to African-American males isn’t terrorism but gun-violence and police brutality.”
Consequently, Price said he teaches African-American boys how to survive police encounters. He said these fears dominate their lives.
For example, Price said Philando Castro’s death demonstrated African-Americans can follow the police’s directions and still be shot.
Just two weeks ago, Price said two African-Americans were arrested at Starbucks on April 12. Price said the men wanted to use the restroom and were viewed as a threat.
Despite these injustices, University of Montevallo professor Wilson Fallin said people must forgive.
Fallin and King both attended Morehouse College. At the college, King taught philosophy and said he would sneak into King’s class and listen.
Beside philosophy, Fallin said he also learned forgiveness from King.
During King’s Poor People Campaign, Fallin said King marched from with America’s poor protesting poverty. They marched from Mississippi to Washington D.C.
As King passed through Birmingham, the two reunited and King rested at Fallin’s church. While in Birmingham, Fallin said a man slapped King at L.R. Hall Auditorium. Rather than becoming angry, King remained calm and persisted with his campaign.
“Forgiveness is necessary for a good life. If you harbor on the past with hatred, that’s more injurious to you than anyone else,” he said. “Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you don’t continue fighting for justice.”
Despite facing discrimination, Fallin said King still enjoyed life. King laughed and joked while eating dinner with Fallin.
Three days later, Fallin said King marched toward Washington D.C. A month later, King was assassinated.
Fallin said the church can heal America’s divide now by helping to solve these problems. He said the church inspired the Civil Rights Movement, and that most of its leaders were pastors. Churches also donated money.
“There’s no question that the Civil Rights Movement wouldn’t have been possible if it had not been for the African-American church,” he said.
However, Fallin said many churches have abandoned this role and rely on politicians.
Even though King prioritized healing, Fallin said King also multi-tasked.
“King’s thoughts were never fixed and he was always changing,” he said.
If alive today, Fallin said he believes King would prioritize America’s poor. Fallin said many poor Americans lack a guaranteed income, affordable housing, and health insurance.
He said King would also increase African-Americans’ economic opportunities. Even though they can vote and have public accommodations, Fallin said many African-Americans still work the worst jobs.
“I think that would his major concern today and serving the poor so they can have a decent livelihood,” he said.
Besides poverty, Fallin said King would probably focus on eliminating war. Fallin said King protested the Vietnam War.
Finally, Fallin said King would reshape American values away from militarism and materialism and toward a society concerned with people.
Tondra Loder-Jackson said both faith and education can solve these problems. She’s an education professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Besides Ghani, Loder-Jackson said Jesus Christ also inspired King’s non-violent protest. She said King believed education should strength intellect and character.
Loder-Jackson said King also emphasized the teacher’s role because they should encourage independent thinking.
“Secular and Christian education were deeply entwined for him ,and we should use our intellect for the common good,” she said.
Besides halting injustice, Fallin said people can’t forget the past. He said forgetting is harmful and that white America doesn’t realize the pain it has inflicted on black people.
Samford geography professor Jennifer Speights-Binet said the confederate monument debate demonstrates Americans are still struggling with the past. Speights-Binet said this debate exceeds the south.
While cities glorify these statues, she said King believed they had failed African-Americans. Speights-Binet said the monuments have changed the civil war’s meaning.
“He was in Chicago and St.Louis, cities that are falling apart and being neglected. He saw that as not only a poverty problem, but as an racial and American problem,” she said.
In New Orleans, she said the city debated for two years before finally removing four statues in 2017. People protested and sued the city. The city also received threats.
The largest debate surrounded the Robert E. Lee statue at Lee Circle.
She said it’s the city’s biggest roundabout, and where parades start and end. Speights-Binet said it serves as a meeting ground, and people couldn’t cross town without seeing it.
“I don’t think there’s a more pivotal space in New Orleans than Lee Circle. The places we build say something about who we are,” she said.
After removing them, Speights-Binet said some cities have placed the statues in museums.
“That’s not the only response. Embedded in all these conversations is the idea (of) ‘how do remember the past and how do we use past memories to shape the present,’” she said.
Samford history professor LeeAnn Reynolds said remembering the past ensures change. By forgetting the past, many Americans abandon these changes. She said many schools became segregated again after the Civil Rights Movement and are even more segregated now.
When remembering the past, Speights-Binet said people should listen to diverse voices but emphasized King and his letter.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was central to the Civil Rights Movement and I don’t know if we have a movement without him,” she said.
Despite his accomplishments, Speights-Binet said King still saw injustice.
Price said King’s letter has inspired him and his church has partnered with family and drug courts. Rather than prison, he said his church helps drug addicts and teaches neglectful parents proper child-caring skills.
Price said he’s also requesting the U.S. Attorney’s office to restore felons’ rights.
“Once you’ve paid your debt to society, your rights should be reinstated,” Price said.
However, Price said he eventually succumbed to the emotional toll.
“King is speaking to us, and I can’t take it anymore. I can’t take another police shooting, injustice, and inequality,” he said. “I can’t sit on the sidelines when this letter tells us to act.”
Samford history professor Jonathan Bass said King believed justice couldn’t depend on people’s generosity. Bass said African-Americans have waited 400 years.
“There’s never a convenient time for justice,” Bass said.
Besides solving problems, Price said different groups must interact.
“How many more African-American males being unjustly shot do we have to see? How many more atrocities and inequity do we have to see?” he asked. “Different doesn’t mean deficient. What will it take for us to understand we in this together.”
William Marlow, News Editor