Nearly 57 years later, Martin Luther King Jr. 's letter written from Birmingham city jail is as relevant as ever, and was brought to life by a speaker in Stewart Center on Tuesday.
Jim Lucas is a speaker, actor and activist inspired by King. He has used his acting talents and resemblance to King to perform speeches and stories from the civil rights icon’s life. “Yours for the Cause of Peace and Brotherhood: A Reading of ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail” was a recitation and a conversation with the audience about the letter’s themes.
Lucas spent three years researching Martin Luther King Jr., poring over articles, books, video and audio clips documenting the life and philosophy of King. He conducted the bulk of his research at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington DC.
Lucas said he was inspired to learn King’s speeches after attending the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington in front of the Lincoln Memorial. He described the event as being “very moving” but felt underwhelmed when the organizers chose to play a recording of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech rather than having someone recite it.
“I wanted to hear someone bring those words to life”, he said. “I made a promise to myself that I would never be apart of another gathering and have to listen to a recording of that speech, even if I had to do it myself.”
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, also known as “The Negro is your Brother,” after being jailed for non-violent protests against segregation. He wrote the letter as a rare response to criticism posed in an article published by eight white clergymen.
The response King wrote would go on to be regarded as a pillar of the civil rights movement, and one of the most influential pieces written by King.
The letter is a small part of a larger stage performance called “Reflections”, a one man show written, directed and performed by Jim Lucas.
The title, Lucas said, is inspired by “reflecting on what happened, and what has happened.” The show includes some of King's greatest speeches, including ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,’ as well as one of his most famous speeches, ‘I Have a Dream.”
“My show is only fifty minutes, and it covers that everything Mr. King did when he was thrust into the spotlight over the bus boycott, from the March on Washington and the “I Had a Dream’ speech, to the push for voters rights and his last speech, ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’, Lucas said, “... So I do 11 years in 50 minutes”.
Lucas said he is only able to include pieces of King’s speeches, as his reading of “Letters from Birmingham Jail” lasted an hour. The speeches Lucas chooses for each show varies.
“He did so much, and so there's so much material to choose from that I don’t necessarily do the same thing every time.”
Aside from the similar physical characteristics Lucas shares with King, he has also adopted King’s philosophy with regard to social justice and non-violent protests. Lucas said he carries on King’s mission by confronting modern examples of racial discrimination, housing discrimination, and higher incarceration rates amongst minorities.
Lucas said the ultimate impact of “Letter from Birmingham Jail'' was that “(King) was able to air many different things he had talked about at many different times, all in one letter.”
The letter is written in a tone of what many attendants characterized as “stern, yet loving.” It encompassed the major points of King’s philosophy, from his stance on equality and segregation to his opinions of lawfulness, timeliness and the role of the white centrist.
In the letter, King is quoted as saying “...The Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice.”
Suzan Windnagel, an audience member, examined King’s stance in regards to her own beliefs.
“I consider myself a moderate, but I also consider myself an activist. I realize that being moderate on issues won’t help solve injustice,” she said.
“If King were alive today, he would probably focus on issues of voter rights, healthcare...poverty, that was a big issue during King’s time, still is,” Lucas said. One of the last things King did before he died was plan a “Poor People's March” to mirror “March on Washington”.
Carol Ben-Davies, Director of Diversity and Inclusion and coordinator of the event, believes that King’s messages extend beyond racial equality.
“Many groups have had to fight for their rights throughout history. Women had to fight for their right to vote, the LGBTQ community had to fight for their right to marriage. King’s philosophy on democracy highlights that democracy is worth fighting for until we have justice for all,” she said.
He said the lasting impact of King’s “Letter of Birmingham Jail” is still as evident as it is still relevant today.
“There are still major parallels (from the letter) to the current justice system,” Lucas said. “I have time to do things others don’t, and that includes listening in on cases in traffic court. Tell me, why is it that 95% of people in traffic court are minorities?”
As for the future of civil rights, “We’ve come a long way, and we have a long, long way to go,” Lucas said.