My Reflections on MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: A Letter to Amara and Anissa

by Lester Deanes |

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (1963)


When Anissa and Amara, my 
twin daughters, were born, my thoughts about why I work in Student Affairs in Jesuit higher education forever changed. I want my daughters to know that I leave them every day because the work
 I do speaks for my soul. My work reflects who I am, and this is the life I pray they will have someday too.

And yet, by the time Anissa and Amara are in college, I fear the world will not have changed enough. I am terrified by the biases 
and discrimination I see in my students and in the implicit biases I struggle to address within myself. I wonder if my daughters will still face injustice because of their mixed race, because of their gender, because . . .

In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writes: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”(1) I chose Dr. King’s letter as my sacred text because it has become a significant resource and tool in my struggle against injustice. Dr. King asks his fellow clergy, and all his readers today: Will you stand with me? Is my struggle your struggle . . . our struggle? In our applications of Dr. King’s teaching in our life and work, we are called to address discrimination in multiple “anywheres” and “everywheres.” Our mutual concern for one another requires a shared vigilance to address personal and structural injustice. As the world continues to change, new challenges and different communities move to the margins. Every form of injustice affects us all, and we must stand with one another in order to make a more just world as fellow children of God.

In reexamining Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” within the context of my work in Jesuit higher education, a number of themes emerge: the importance of finding connection with others, an expanded vision of social justice to include multiple identity frames, and the importance of challenging the status quo as a necessary step in interrupting oppressive systems. Student Affairs at a Jesuit university is, at its core, rooted in the principles articulated during the Civil Rights Movement.

Amara and Anissa Deanes at one month.

 
FINDING CONNECTIONS WITH OTHERS


The theme of discerning connections with others is set out at the start of Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He begins by stating
 his purpose for being in Alabama: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here . . . ‘thus saith the Lord,’ far beyond the boundaries . . . so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”(2) As a student affairs practitioner, Dr. King’s reflections call me to care for and be concerned with those beyond my “hometown”—regardless of their community membership. Outside
 a student’s academic pursuits, there is no
greater purpose in Jesuit higher education than empowering students to find their connections within and beyond their root communities 
and subcommunities. And there is an inherent synergy between these expanding layers of interconnectedness and social justice.

In order for social justice to exist, there must be some level of caring for or connection with “the other.” In the context of my work in student affairs in Jesuit higher education, “the other” can mean any perspective or social identity beyond one’s own. Laws alone cannot create a just society. Attitudes and perspectives must shift to create lasting change. I have led various diversity workshops for hundreds of students at Santa Clara University and beyond. As a facilitator, I have learned that the best chance to change a student’s perspective comes from hearing his or her peers speak out of their different experiences. There is great power in creating opportunities for students to share across their diverse experiences. Lasting change comes from connecting minds and hearts, from sharing values and experiences, and from genuine dialogue. Although it is not
a simple task, dialogue serves as a catalyst for transformative change; it has the power to create the peace for which so many of us are searching. Personally, there are a number of perspectives that deeply challenge my own faith and values, but Dr. King’s letter reminds me to seek out places of dialogue; it is only in making room 
to be connected with “the other” that I become whole and authentic myself.

AN EXPANDED VISION OF SOCIAL JUSTICE

Selma, Alabama Civil Rights March, 1965 with Representative John Lewis, Ralph Abernahy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Courtesy of Susannah Heschel

I wonder what Dr. King would say about our current struggles in the United States and around the globe. Issues of racism, sexism, and classism often dominate public discourse, and yet the topic of public conversation regularly shifts to accommodate the next great tragedy. Pathways toward transformative change
 are challenging; they require a sustained commitment to dialogue. I think Dr. King would be disappointed with our progress.

In the past 50 years, communities on 
the margins have shifted to include those struggling with issues of nationality, disability, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. Santa Clara University’s mission and vision statement is centered on the creation of a “more humane, just, and sustainable world.”(3) As a Jesuit institution, we must ask ourselves if we are providing the support needed to ensure that all students, faculty, staff, administrators, and community members are able to thrive. Dr. King’s letter illustrates an expanded
vision of social justice; his concern and commitment extends to those of multiple and diverse communities. “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.”(4)

In student affairs, we regularly talk with our students about the interrelatedness of multiple social and communal identity frames, such as gender, sexual orientation, faith, body image, age, nationality, disability, and socioeconomic status. I often ask myself and my students to consider which perspectives, communities, or voices are missing from their circles and conversations. On a daily basis I’m challenged by this concept and I’m also challenged by
the ways many of my students engage those
of other faiths, cultures, and traditions. I feel called to encourage my students to apply this concept of interrelatedness to their everyday interactions with others; to think critically about the significance of their behavior in and outside the classroom. Students should consider other communities and social identities when selecting a Halloween costume, or the language they use to describe others on social media.
Dr. King calls us to expand our perspective of community to include those on and outside
the margins. In order to be congruent in our faith and community values, we must practice the principles of social justice in all spaces and places of our lives.

CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham Jail. Rev. Wyatt T. Walker

The last theme that emerges for me through 
my reflections on Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is his commitment to challenging the status quo. Democracy is rooted in and responsive to action. Silence and passivity have never moved a democracy to be concerned about the marginalized. Rather, “Injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action.”(5)

But “strong, persistent, and determined” action takes coalition building. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King highlights
all the committed individuals and institutions actively working alongside him in the Civil Rights Movement. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” took on new meaning for me when I rediscovered that Dr. King congratulated Spring Hill College, a Jesuit institution, for their efforts to desegregate well before other colleges and universities in the South. In fact, Spring Hill College was the only college to desegregate for 10 years in the South.(6)

Spring Hill College thus serves as an example for the active role Jesuit universities can play in fighting injustice. Spring Hill College challenged the status quo not because it was easy or popular but because it was just. These actions showed a genuine willingness to stand in solidarity with those on the margins without concern for personal or institutional gain.

Spring Hill College thus serves as an example for the active role Jesuit universities can play in fighting injustice. Spring Hill College challenged the status quo not because it was easy or popular but because it was just. These actions showed a genuine willingness to stand
in solidarity with those on the margins without concern for personal or institutional gain. The leadership demonstrated by the Spring Hill College community should not be forgotten and continues to impact generations of students. I have a profound sense of gratitude that another Jesuit institution was willing to be the first to take that critical step for justice.(7)

I am equally proud of the steps my own institution, Santa Clara University, has taken 
to support undocumented students, both the emotional and financial support of the Jesuit community, as well as the University’s advocacy efforts toward immigration reform. However, we have a long way to go.

We must ask, as a community that strives for social justice, are any of our policies or traditions adversely impacting our community members? We should consider reviewing our policy regarding domestic partners living on campus in the residence halls. If we do not explicitly recognize these partnerships, the quality of life for on-campus professional faculty and staff is compromised and our campus community becomes less than welcoming for the LGBTQ community.

Anissa and Amara at six months.

 
Injustice is a disease that can infect all of us, and the only cure is genuine dialogue and a willingness and commitment to stand with the marginalized. Through genuine dialogue, I have been able to unpack and examine the places
 in my life where I have oppressed others, an intense but hugely important emotional process of exposing my vulnerabilities. Likewise, Dr. King’s letter challenges our students, faculty, staff, administrators, and alumni to consider these questions: Did you seek to make a connection today with your fellow community members? Did you engage in genuine dialogue with someone different from yourself? Did you challenge what was unjust in the status quo?
 I hope when my daughters read this essay, they will understand how much I love them and the work I do. I work at Santa Clara University because I am challenged on a daily basis to be more and to do more for the students and communities we serve. We cannot be leaders 
in immigration rights and not be leaders in gender equity; support for underrepresented students, and leaders in advocacy for students with disabilities. More is required of us. Meeting legal requirements or measuring up to our peer institutions is not enough. Magis. More 
is required of me if I am going to be the role model and example my children need. Instead of settling for the status quo, we must engage in the ever messy, ever ongoing dialogue required to form a just community.

 

LESTER DEANES is an Assistant Dean for Student Life at Santa Clara University, where he is responsible for engaging staff, faculty, and students to promote an inclusive campus community. His higher education research interests are in first-year students, students of color, and first-generation college students.
 

 

Endnotes


  1. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963,” in Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1950s and 1960s: A Brief History with Documents, ed. David Howard-Pitney (New York: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2004), 75.
  2. Ibid.
  3. See Santa Clara University vision statement: http://www.scu.edu/jesuit/University-Mission.cfm
  4. MLK, 75.
  5. Ibid, 85.
  6. Spring Hill College, (n.d.) About SHC: History of Spring Hill College,, http://www.shc.edu/about/history-spring-hillcollege (January 16, 2013).
  7. MLK, 86.

 

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