Event Marks 60th Anniversary of MLK’s Birmingham Jail Letter

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A crowd gathered in the rotunda of the Mahoning County Courthouse on Monday afternoon as 27 religious leaders, students and other community members took turns reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past hosted the event in honor of the 60th anniversary of the letter’s creation.

Penny Wells, executive director of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, said the organization held a similar event 10 years ago. Due to recent events, she said she felt compelled to host another reading.

“One of the main differences is, I think that we have more issues that have risen and up ahead,” she said. “One of them is [that] the pieces of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have been chiseled away at and removed, so we have voice suppression.”

Wells said voice suppression is not just experienced in the South, but in Ohio as well.

“I think so many things he [King] said in that letter are so appropriate to today’s time,” she said. 

There are a lot more issues the public needs to be aware of, Wells said.

Wells was a former teacher in Youngstown City Schools. Now she takes high school students on a leadership development, “History immersion journey to the Civil Rights sites in the South” for independent study history credits.

“This concern about not wanting to teach the truth was a big issue with me as a history teacher, and I think that we need to stand up and say what is wrong with telling the bad that has happened in this country,” she said. 

Wells recollected the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and a history of lynchings.

“In the words of Bryan Stevenson, if we don’t acknowledge the things we have done, then we never can have reconciliation,” she said.

Readers for the event included religious leaders, which Wells said was significant as eight religious leaders wrote a letter to King asking him to hold off marching.

Derrick McDowell, founder of the Youngstown Flea, reads a portion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on Monday.

Other community members and Chaney High School students also participated in the reading at Monday’s event.

“It was a cross section of community people,” Wells said. 

Wells said the courthouse location is also significant. 

“It is the Mahoning County Courthouse, so it is a center of power,” she said. “Part of what Dr. King was saying is that we all have power. We just need to exercise that power, [and] we have to be willing to speak out when other people around us don’t agree with us.”

Wells calls 1963 a “banner year” of events. The letter from Birmingham jail, followed by the Children’s Crusade two weeks later, the murder of Medgar Evers, the march on Washington and the bombing of a Birmingham church.

“We are doing something to commemorate each one of those events for the rest of this year,” she said. 

The key takeaways for the events is to remain peaceful but not a “silent witness,” Wells said.   

“In the Mahoning Valley, we need to be very aware of the fact that we need to teach the history of all people in this country,” she said. “We need to be aware of laws being passed, restricting the rights of minorities.”

Pictured at top: Penny Wells, executive director of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past.

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