A screenshot from a video showing a man with shaved head wearing a gray suit behind a podium next to a panel of an older woman and two older men.

#TFA25: Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Long Road to Equity

At Teach For America's 25th anniversary, civil rights activists discussed how Dr. King's letter echoes today.
Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A panel of renowned civil rights activists and leaders convened at our 25th Anniversary Summit last weekend to offer their own perspectives on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Dr. Joyce Ladner recalled her own story of trying to register to vote as a college student in Mississippi, failing the test three times. On the third attempt, knowing she would fail anyway and in response to the question, "What is a good citizen?" Dr. Ladner answered, "A good citizen is one who obeys just laws and disobeys unjust laws."

“Of course, I failed again,” Dr. Ladner said.

Noting Dr. King’s courage and fortitude, morality and ethics, and clarity of vision, Dr. Ladner told those in attendance, “Much of what he wrote in his letter is relevant to you today. Things such as seizing the moment. Things such as fighting against unjust laws and on the importance of individual action as well as group action. And critically important, the creation of the society you want because fate and chance are not going to deliver it to you."

Growing up in Alabama, writer and activist Bob Zellner admitted it was very unlikely he would become involved in the Civil Rights Movement. His father was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Zellner recalled meeting Rosa Parks, who touched the young sociology student on the elbow and said, "Bob, when you see something wrong you have to do something about it. You can't study it forever." Zellner joked that he still hasn’t washed that elbow and offered those in attendance similar words of advice. 

"So if I have any message for teachers, we cannot only teach about making change we have to make that change. And that's what you're about," Zellner said. 

Dr. Terrence Roberts, a member of the Little Rock Nine, offered his perspective on Dr. King’s letter, noting that the same truths are being echoed today, by writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book, Between the World and Me.

"My generation got its start on the egis of the Plessy decision, which had been rendered in 1896,” Dr. Roberts said. “I am one of those separate, but equal babies. And that actually led to a lot of confusion of my part. When I exited the womb on December 3rd, in 1941, I expected to find a population of people who loved me. I was mistaken. What I found, in fact, was a system of law and custom that deemed me unacceptable. That was the kind of thing that convinced me to join later this group of nine."

Check out the video below for the full seminar and more on these leaders’ perspectives on Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and the long road to equity.

Letter from Birmingham Jail: Perspectives on the Long Road to Equity, by TheresaKennelly@gmail.com



Join our diverse force of leaders shaping the course of our nation.