King's Birmingham Letter Resonates 50 Years Later
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- The words of Martin Luther King Jr. echoed through the Mahoning County Courthouse, across the country, and to regions as remote as Antarctica Tuesday as participants joined to commemorate what's become a seminal document of the modern civil rights movement and the struggle for equality.
Fifty years to the day since King began writing his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," community leaders and students from the Mahoning Valley gathered to listen as 23 people took turns reading passages from the essay.
The event was part of a worldwide celebration organized by the Birmingham Public Library, said Penny Wells, director of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past. The letter was read in schools and libraries in other American cities, as well as cities in China, Thailand, Somalia, South Africa, Israel, Germany and Antarctica.
"This is important because I think at times we become complacent," Wells said. "I think many of the things that Dr. King said in that letter are very applicable today."
Sojourn to the Past is a program that sponsors Youngstown students each year to visit civil rights locations throughout the South, and speak with those leaders who played an integral role in the fight.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a close associate of King at the time of his assassination in 1968 who participated in the Freedom Rides in 1961 and the march on Selma in 1965, has met with students every year, Wells said.
King wrote the letter while incarcerated in the Birmingham, Ala. city jail after he was arrested on April 12, 1963 for violating a court injunction that prohibited marches or demonstrations in the city.
He and other civil rights leaders were in Birmingham to stage peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins to protest segregation in that city's business district.
After King's arrest, a friend smuggled in a local newspaper dated April 12, which had published an open letter written by eight white members of the Birmingham clergy, titled "A Call to Unity." The letter expressed concerns that King's tactic of civil disobedience would breed more hostility and disturbance in the South and that the demonstrations were, at best, "untimely," and inferred that the campaign to integrate Birmingham was orchestrated by outside extremists, meaning King.
King responded with a long letter evoking the very heart and soul of the movement, explaining in frank terms why waiting was no longer an option. King composed the letter first within the margins of a newspaper, then on scraps of paper that were smuggled out and pieced together later.
"I am in Birmingham because injustice is here," he wrote, and later in the letter would add the famous phrase "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
The Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, Martin Luther King Planning Committee, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, the Baptist Pastors Council, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Area Federation sponsored the event.
Rev. Lewis Macklin of the Holy Trinity Baptist Church in Youngstown and the Martin Luther King Planning Committee said he hopes members of the community are able to comprehend and grasp a better understanding of what King and other civil right leaders stood for and accomplished.
"I hope they realize the profound tension from which this letter was generated," Macklin said. "And, understand that we cannot allow complacency and sitting back and looking for someone else to do it."
Moreover, he emphasized that King's message is just as relevant today as it was a half-century ago, especially to young African Americans.
"Ironically, 50 years ago my dad was celebrating his 20th birthday," Macklin recalled, noting that his father was disgruntled because of the lack of opportunity, but challenged by the community and church to take action.
"I have a son that's 21 years of age echoing the same sentiment," Macklin said. "Where are the jobs? Where are the opportunities? And how can we bring about transformation in our community to deal with the disparities and inequities that do exist?"
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