Forum focuses on MLK's letter from jail
by Shane Dunaway
Oct 21, 2013 | 2655 views |  0 comments | 60 60 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jim Smothers/The Daily Home
Jim Smothers/The Daily Home
More than 50 students, professors and community members gathered at Talladega College’s Swayne Hall Auditorium Monday for a public forum discussing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

The event, organized by junior Tomas Cone and sophomore Lawrence Bartholomew, featured a four-person panel, including business and politics professor Dr. Bernard Bray, African American history and humanities professor Dr. Keith Winsell, Talladega County Chapter President of the NAACP Hugh Morris and first-cousin of Coretta Scott-King, Mary Scott-Hicks.

Of the students in attendance, the bulk of them raised their hands when Cone asked if they saw the dramatized reading of the letter at the Ritz Theatre Thursday and Friday night. More than 100 students across campus attended the production during the two-day period.

The group discussed the letter, the play and how it impacted them and their views on how they see today’s struggles by comparison.

Bartholomew referred to the Mark Twain quote, “The two most important days of your life is the day you were born and the day you find out why,” when discussing his views of the letter.

“When will our generation find out why it is necessary to understand history and better ourselves as a people through these troubling times,” Bartholomew said. “What I noticed during the play is (King) is the type of guy who sat in the middle. He understood that some people accepted segregation as the norm and some people become bitter toward it. He was in between and he kept sane.”

Morris discussed the burgeoning differences separating African Americans in the middle class versus those living in poverty.

“The middle class say that they’ve made it and that there’s no more segregation,” Morris said. “They feel like, ‘I’ve got mine. You go and get yours.’ We as a people need to pull together. A perfect example of it was this past weekend at the state NAACP convention held here in Talladega where very few black came. That hurts us.

“I want to see things right with everyone, but I don’t know how to motivate people or motivate the kids to have them pull their pants up and have them be recognized as a human being,” he added.

Morris described a picture floating around the internet with King and other civil rights leaders with the caption, “When they respected us,” with a photo underneath of kids wearing saggy pants with the caption, “Now they don’t.”

“It’s a perfect example of how we have woefully fallen short,” Morris said.

Bray commented on the King’s letter and it’s theme of waiting for equality.

“You’ve been asking us all this time to wait and wait and wait,” Bray said. “Well, we’re not going to wait any longer. I hope that every one of you will get a copy of the letter, read it, study it and bring it out through your imagination to see what it means (in relation to) the kind of situation we’re in now.”

Local American Legion Commander Fred Pearson answered a question posed by Bartholomew asking how some of the older generation maintained their sanity during such a turbulent period of history.

“Mostly it was our parents who kept us in line,” Pearson said. “They knew we would go to jail if we stepped out of line.”

Junior Byron Houston told the crowd after reading the letter and seeing the play that he got more from reading the letter. He offered his perspective on the clergymen and their response to King.

“What I found interesting to me is they could read law after law, but they couldn’t apply it,” Houston said. “They would (stand up) and say, ‘This is what the law says,’ but they’ve never stood in a black man’s shoes. So how could they understand what the law means?”

Sophomore Daniel Bryant stated he had the opposite experience.

“I actually read the letter in Mrs. (Barbara) Lawler’s class and honestly, I read it like it was a book,” Bryant said. “But when I actually experienced the play, I felt like the expression that was put into certain words that needed to be distinguished was on point. I felt his complete emotion and expression through every word. I took that different and I did more studying (of the letter) after the play.”

Houston explained the letter’s message still resonates in today’s society.

“It’s 2013 and the same issues in 1963 when it was written are still going on,” Houston said. “It covers a whole spectrum. It focused on blacks, but it can be applied to Latinos, whites, whoever the case may be. Sometimes we get so caught up in ‘it’s a white/black thing,’ but it’s not just us.”

The near hour-long discussion covered the gamut of Civil Rights-related topics, including discussion regarding iconic Alabama Governor George Wallace’s role during the time to the challenges faced by King on his quest for equality.

“The biggest battle Dr. King and others had to fight was in their own community,” English professor Dr. DeLois Cook said. “Getting black people involved who were not wanting to give up their middle class status was one of the biggest issues he had in getting this movement going. We have to get all the pieces together.”

To close the forum, Cone and Bartholomew each read monologues urging the crowd to wake up and recapture the ideals and goals King strived for when he battled on behalf of his people for equal rights.

Contact Shane Dunaway at