Discussion Questions for April 9, 2020: MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail

First, I want to say how impressed I have been with your resilience and general good-spiritedness in these very strange and stressful times. Your chats last week were not only a model of engaged, collaborative learning; they also brought me cheer. All around, way to go.

As a side note, some groups weren’t able to get through all the questions and spent upwards of two hours chatting. Feel free to go offline after an hour and twenty minutes. The questions are designed to be iterative — part of the strategy I use in writing the questions is to encourage you to think about the issues from multiple angles — and the groups that are spending 2+ hours are generally doing a good job of opening up the early questions to interrogate the issues from multiple sides. All of this is to say, no need to rush through the questions; just go through them as best you can for about an hour and twenty minutes. Finally, I do ask that you save the last five minutes for the “So What?!” and the exam terms.

Were we in class together, the theme song would be John Prine’s Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore. John Prine died of COVID-19 this week. The chorus of the Vietnam-era song goes,

But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore/ They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war/ Now Jesus don’t like killin’, no matter what the reason’s for/ And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore

Questions for Today

  1. Take time (if you feel like it) to check in with one another.
  2. Please look over #relpol225 and discuss the posts you find interesting.
  3. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is perhaps MLK’s most famous piece of writing, but I think that there is a good chance that many of you had never read it before. Have you read this before? And, (regardless) what stood out to you or surprised you about this piece?
  4. Who were the “dear fellow clergymen” whom King addressed? Why did King take issue with them? (For more information, you can check out these links.)
  5. If you had to choose the most emblematic line (of couplet of lines) of this letter, what would you choose? Why? (There’s no right answer to this question: I’m hoping members of the group choose different lines and bring out different messages.)
  6. Last week, we read Annette Gordon-Reed’s essay which argued, in part, that King’s mission was a religious mission. She also argued that King’s contributions to philosophy be taken more seriously. What evidence do you see evidence to support these claims in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” despite its relative brevity and the conditions in which King wrote it? How did religious and philosophical texts shape King’s political arguments (please address 3 or 4 instances in their specificity)?
  7. Why did King write that “the white moderate” is a bigger obstacle to the black freedom movement than a member of the KKK? Do you think King was right about this?
  8. Can you please discuss the distinction between what King calls a “negative peace” and a “positive peace”?
  9. Does King have “faith in America?” Why or why not? Do you see King invoking concepts from American Civil Religion?
  10. Especially in regard to the white church, there are opportunities to compare MLK’s 1963 “Letter from Bham Jail” to Frederick Douglass’s 1952 “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” If you have time, please flesh out some of the similarities and differences.
  11. So What?! Also, please list some terms that might be used for the final exam.