The topics feature a primary discussion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 10-page “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The forum also allows participants to provide their comments about the recent government shutdown.
According to English communications professor Barbara Lawler, discussions and argumentative essays written about the letter during her class combined with trips to the Ritz Theatre to see the play named for the letter prompted students to proactively implement the forum concept with the help of business and political science professor Bernard Bray and African American history professor Keith Winsell.
Junior Tomas Cone and sophomore Lawrence Bartholomew spearheaded the campaign to hold the forum for students and community members.
“I bought into the idea right away because I’m always open to suggestions by my students,” Lawler said. “These two guys have been so adamant about having other students being involved.”
Lawler called the letter by King a powerful example of an argumentative essay, one she used to provoke thoughts and responses from her students.
“It constitutes one of the best forms of argument that you would ever come across,” Lawler said. “It really just does what an argumentative essay should do. It’s just so magnificent.”
Cone stated he was impressed by the letter and the play inspired by it, and he found the responses from clergy members and government officials to be interesting.
“(People) weren’t saying they were against the Civil Rights Movement, but they wanted to put it on a timeline,” Cone said. “Dr. King didn’t want to put it on a timeline because you can’t put freedom on a timeline.”
Winsell compared King’s plight to a similar scenario involving poet Henry David Thoreau’s protest during the 1840s when he protested taxation during the war against Mexico.
“(King) was responding to unjust conditions,” Winsell said. “He was trying to remind people that after 100 years, the Emancipation Proclamation had not really taken full effect.”
Lawler stressed that many people within the community haven’t learned about the letter because it’s not often discussed outside of college-level or college-prep courses.
“We want people to know how relevant this piece of writing is 50 years later,” Lawler said. “We want to make students aware of a piece of writing of this magnitude and the power of writing. These two students thought it would be a really great idea to hold a forum to follow up on how the written word resounds even today.”
In addition to opening the forum to the public, the group extended an invitation to actor Cecil Washington, who performed in the play, to provide his insight into the Civil Rights Movement and the letter.
“There’s a lesson in that letter,” Bartholomew said. “Here’s a guy who stands between segregation. There are blacks who accept it as the norm and there are other blacks who take it to the extreme with hate and bitterness. King sits in between and balances himself with love. People criticized him and called him an extremist. He responded, ‘To what degree am I an extremist? Am I an extremist of love or hate?’ He presented examples, saying that Abraham Lincoln, Jesus Christ and Thomas Jefferson were extremists.”
Following the discussion of the letter, the group plans to shift into discussion of the government shutdown and its impact on the country.
“We want to raise awareness that there’s a way to go about things and there are ways you shouldn’t go about things,” Lawler said. “I think it’s relevant in a sense because there’s an ideal time and an ideal way to (accomplish objectives).”
The group echoed their hopes to fill the auditorium and bring together a group of diverse individuals ready to add insight and thought-provoking commentary into the discussion for both topics.
“We’re hoping to find a way to tie in the past, future and present,” Bartholomew said. “We don’t just want to focus on the problems. We want to focus on the solutions. I can’t wait to talk about the letter and show people that you don’t have to go around and hate.”
Contact Shane Dunaway at email@example.com