Written May 23, 1996 for an undergraduate Composition Writing class in Tulsa, Oklahoma; published in 1997; a reflection on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail
In 1983, I was privileged to spend ten days visiting Folsom Prison as a guest of the warden and the chief of police. Having studied psychology for the past three years, I was eager to find out what made the prisoners think differently from the rest of us. I found it amazing that someone could not only think of committing a crime, but actually do it as well. Realizing that many of these men would kill, rape, rob, or beat another human being with as much emotion as it takes for me to comb my hair, and knowing that most of these men were not sorry for the crimes they had committed, I asked the Lord, “For those not mentally ill, what is wrong with their minds?” In my spirit, I heard God answer, “Nothing. Their minds are doing exactly what their minds were created to do. The problem is in their heart. A change of heart is a change of life.” All prisons are horrible, but the worst prison of all is the prison of mediocrity.
Prisoners of mediocrity are as Martin Luther King, Jr. suggests, “dedicated to maintenance of the status quo.” Silence, in regard to the oppressed, delivers the same judgment as action in regard to the oppressors. The person who says nothing, looks the other way, pays no attention, or says, “it is none of my business,” shares the same guilt with the one who delivers the blow of inhumane justice and oppression.
One of the most memorable and well-written scenes to come out of Hollywood is from the movie, Pretty Woman. Edward, a multimillionaire businessman played by Richard Gere, has just been surprised by the actions of Vivian, a prostitute played by Julia Roberts. After drinking champagne and eating strawberries, Vivian excuses herself from Edward’s presence and taking her purse with her, retreats into the bathroom. Edward, being suspicious of her actions, has decided to see what she is doing. Vivian is about to floss the strawberry seeds out of her teeth when she hears Edward open the door. Embarrassed, she closes her hand around the dental floss hiding it from Edward. Edward, assuming she is hiding drugs in her hand, grabs Vivian by the arm, shoves her purse into her chest, and tells her that he will have nothing to do with drugs while pushing her toward the door. Surprised by this sudden accusation, Vivian halts their movement and declares that she does not do drugs. Edward then asks her to show what she is hiding in her hand. Humiliated, Vivian opens her hand to reveal the dental floss. Edward is stunned. Seeing his reaction, Vivian asks, “What’s the matter? Never see anyone floss their teeth?” Edward responds by saying, “People don’t usually surprise me.” To which Vivian says, “You’re lucky. They shock the hell out of me.”
The older I get the more like Vivian I become: people shock the hell out of me. Walking into class I was shocked to hear complaints about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter being too long. I was shocked to hear one student say that she was glad he was dead. I was shocked to hear this same student say that Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t know when to shut up. I was shocked to hear another student agree that he (Dr. King) didn’t need to write so much. I was shocked to hear several students complain that the letter took too long to read. All, of course, received my very emotional and not-thought-out-at-all response, “Too bad you had to suffer through four pages of a letter written by a man representing a whole group of people who have been suffering for hundreds of years.” To which one student replied, “Fourteen pages, Penny, not four.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. was not only the face of hope for black people in the 1950’s and 60’s, but he has been one of the world’s greatest instigators of higher thinking. He challenged people of all races to look beyond themselves to a higher cause. He challenged people from all backgrounds to break the boundaries of complacency. He challenged all people to overcome hate with love. He challenged all people to think with a greater purpose.
Dr. King quotes Jesus, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson in his letter from the Birmingham jail. These men are not only easily identifiable, by they are also instigators of a higher level of thinking. Each of these men, including Martin Luther King, Jr., fought for a cause greater than his own life. Each man rose above the level of mediocrity by challenging society to step up to the level of responsibility. Each man looked inward for answers rather than outward for blame, and each man challenged all people to do the same.
Although Martin Luther King, Jr. was the voice of strength and the face of hope for black people during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, he never pointed to himself as the one to follow. He always pointed beyond himself to the one greater than he: Jesus Christ. I believe, in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s heart, the most important role he lived was that of a Christian. In his letter from the Birmingham jail, he writes to his fellow clergy, “I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.”
Because Martin Luther King, Jr. chose not to live a life of mediocrity, people have done more than just exist, they have lived. Alice Walker testifies,
Because of the Movement, because of an awakened faith in the newness and imagination of the human spirit…because of the beatings, the arrests, the hell of battle during the past years, I have fought harder for my life and for a chance to be myself, to be something more than a shadow or a number, than I had ever done before. Before, there had seemed to be no real reason for struggling beyond the effort for daily bread.
Because Martin Luther King, Jr. defied mediocrity, we have been given the awareness of “right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant” and “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Martin Luther King, Jr. shined the light of justice for all people into the caverns of injustice for a select people. He called forth a response and an action from all social classes.
It is true, one day each of us will stand before God, judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character. The prison of mediocrity is a choice. The freedom of nobility is a choice. Both come with a price tag — pay now or pay later.
Kirszner, Laurie G., and Stephen R. Mandell. eds. Patterns for College Writing. 6th edition. New York; St. Martin’s. 1995
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Kirszner and Mandell.
Walker, Alice. “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It.” Kirszner and Mandell.