“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” ~Rev.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1963
Thank you Kirwan Inst. and kudos to Jamaal Bell. I teach middle school civics and we’re studying Dr. King’s letter and how it relates to the civil rights movement as it’s covered in our textbook and the 14th Amendment. I think that both having a variety of narrators rather than a single actor portraying King or merely reading the letter, combine with the still images and historic footage you’ve woven together made this a more meaningful and compelling piece- especially for rural, mostly white Iowa eighth graders in 2018, who otherwise may not have understood or appreciated the letter as well.
When I re-read or re-teach this letter, I am reminded of Dr. King’s intelligence, patience, compassion, and insight. This letter has inspired me to write poems and blog posts and paint paintings.
This year, however, just as Dr. King wrote it in response to well intentioned white clergy fifty-five years ago, I wish I could introduce it to all the well-meaning white Christians, especially moderates and conservatives.
King, speaking to clergymen after all, even though it’s an “open” letter that the entire world was privy to in newspapers and magazines, alluded to several saints, philosophers and scriptures. He referrers to the teachings and examples of Jesus frequently in the letter.
These days, my family, friends and neighbors don’t understand the protests over police brutality in the last 2-3 years in Ferguson, Baton Rouge, Baltimore, etc. They saw white supremacists demonstrating in Charlotteville, VA and somehow they blamed former President Obama for being racially divisive during his time in office.
President Trump started his campaign off by describing Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists and started his administration off by calling for a ban on travel and immigration from predominantly Muslim countries.
Just this week Attorney General Jeff Sessions let slip during remarks to law enforcement officials in Washington that he thinks that sheriffs’ have an”Anglo–American heritage.”
My own Congressman, Steve King (R) of Iowa has opposed immigration because he doesn’t think we can restore our “superior culture” with “other people’s babies.” King has met with and admires Tomio Okamura, the leader of a neo-fascist white supremacist party in the Czech Republic.
As much as people would like to think that we’re more enlightened than Americans were in 1963 or have somehow achieved racial harmony, but obviously we haven’t. I fear that too many of us ARE the “white moderates” that Doctor King criticized in this letter.
We have become complacent or numb to injustice and inequalities. We’re reluctant to recognize let alone repent of our own latent racism. Many of us our even either in denial about or oblivious to institutional forms of racism and the racism of many of our leaders, either because recognizing it would mean having to do something about it or worse, recognizing it would reflect poorly on ourselves. We don’t want to admit that we could possibly be wrong.
Then there’s women’s inequality. Why do we hesitate to equate sexism with racism? Are they not the same? I think that when King talks about Austrian philosopher Martin Buber’s discussion about “I and Thou” rather than “I-It,” we could apply that to women as well as to people of color. Don’t we too often treat women as things rather than people?
And of course today discussion of LGBT rights is much more prominent than in the 1960’s. Even if you have difficulties getting past religious qualms about non-traditional (“non-binary”) sexuality, its impossible to get around that the Constitution’s requirements of equal protection and due process for all, regardless of race, creed, gender, and political persuasion. Discrimination is discrimination, no matter who it’s against or what your motivation.
This year, what made an impression on me was King’s discussion about just and unjust laws. Too many politicians have been using the argument about following the “rule of law” to whip up anger and indignation against DACA “Dreamer”immigrants, who’s parents brought them to this country when they were young children and who essentially have never known any country (home) than this one, but now face deportation decades later.
Doctor King handles head-on the fact that morality and justice are more important than the letter-of-the law, especially when state or local laws are abused by those in power to discriminate, segregate, or violate the rights and protections guaranteed by the Constitution. Had he been a judge or a lawyer rather than a pastor and organizer, he probably would’ve quoted the Fourteenth Amendment directly.
I wish my loved ones would realize that when laws are inadequate, unclear, or unfair, it is our responsibility to revise, reform, or replace them. And that challenging them, protesting, sometimes even deliberately breaking them are all part of our constant democratic process.
I feel like ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ is a masterpiece of writing. Personally, I consider it part of the broader American “unwritten-constitution,” along side things like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or Washington’s farewell address or Teddy Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine and along side his own ‘I Have a Dream’ speech which he made just four or five months after he wrote this.
If you’ve never read it, I encourage you to find a copy. If you have about an hour that you’d otherwise end up using on Netflix or YouTube anyway, watch the video linked to at the top of this blog post. Consider it kind of an audio version of this letter. My prayer is that it will impact you half as much as it has me.
Using an essay format, research and report on 2 heroes (real or fictional, living or dead, local or world renowned) related to your curriculum & the Touchstone you created in Assignment #1. Your report should include the heroes’ names, a brief summary of their deeds, an explanation of what they overcame, and the connection between the traits that made them successful and your class touchstone of traits. Also, include a general plan of how you can integrate them into the curriculum/lesson(s) (e.g. video, literature, posted photo, as a guest speaker) and finally a brief summary as to how learning about these heroes can model character and be inspirations to your students and deepen critical thinking and problem solving skills.
HERO #1: Art Hero Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was a Norwegian painter whose intensely evocative treatment of psychological themes greatly influenced an early twentieth century art movement known as German Expressionism. He is most famous for his 1893 painting, the Scream, which is thought to represent what it feels like to suffer a panic attack. This painting is so well known as to be considered iconic, like DaVinci’s Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It is one of the most expensive paintings ever sold at auction, fetching more than $100 million.
Munch is believed to have suffered from both depression and anxiety. Munch’s mother died of tuberculosis when he was only five. His sister Johanne Sophie, to whom he was very close, died from the same disease when he was 14. Their father passed away when Edvard was 25 and attending college, leaving him destitute and forcing him to return home to take care of his younger siblings. In his 40’s, Munch had the courage to seek medical and psychiatric help. He believed that his treatments were successful and his work became brighter, more colorful. and had more optimistic themes.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis labeled Munch’s work “degenerate art” (along with many other modern artists) and removed 82 of his works from German museums and either destroyed, put into warehouses, or smuggled out to the Netherlands. In 1940, the Germans invaded Norway and the Nazi party took over the government. Munch was 76 years old and with the help of underground smugglers and art collectors gathered and protected as many of his paintings as he could on the second floor of his home, putting himself at great risk. Today those works and many by Dutch painter Vincent VanGogh are preserved at the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway.
Munch exhibited character traits which were uncommon among commercially successful painters of his time. He demonstrated his imagination in paintings that engaged viewers as if they were participating in scenes from a play. He showed his curiosity and adaptability first by delving beyond just subject matter into content and meaning and then by exploring new forms incorporating new philosophies into his works such as symbolism and synthetism. He showed enormous amounts of passion and self-awareness by making himself vulnerable in his work by constantly exploring his own personal pain and experiences. And he showed perseverance and courage by remaining true to his vision even in the face of enormous political and social pressure.
Much’s example shows us that everyone has inherent dignity and deserves to be treated equally with respect, because we never know what others have had to suffer through. Much didn’t settle for being just another post-impressionist painting the same pretty flowers and street scenes as the rest of his contemporaries- he challenged himself to learn and apply new ideas and explore new horizons, and we should also keep pushing ourselves to get better. Munch created several different versions of his composition the Scream between 1893 and 1910 with paint, pastel, etchings and engravings. That’s an example for us to never be satisfied, but to constantly work to improve and learn, even from what we think of as mistakes.
Boyer Valley Art Room Touchstone Creed:
We respect each other as artists
We push ourselves
We learn from mistakes
and celebrate each other’s successes
One of the National Art Education Standards is Personal Expression: Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas (content). Art History and Art Criticism are also among these standards. One of the critical thinking skills integral to Art Criticism is being able to interpret the content and meaning of artworks. Munch is discussed within one of the major 20th century art movements taught in Eighth Grade Art.
I introduced Munch by first having students perform “aesthetic scans” of a small number of his paintings in the series he called “the frieze of life.” These include one of a child at her mother’s death bed, one called “Jealousy,” and one called “Self-portrait in Hell.” I have students come up with possible narratives about what’s happening in the paintings and discuss the points of view of the various subjects in the paintings and speculate as to the possible frame of mind of the artist when he/she created them. We also discuss how and why artists attempt to invoke moods, evoke associations and provoke reactions from their viewers. Then I briefly share Munch’s biography with them before having them create their own expressionist paintings.
Instead of painting attractive impressionistic landscapes and flowers, Munch to paint his experiences and his feelings. By doing so he pioneered a whole new genre of painting which was more personal and unique. Today many people use painting as a form of art-therapy and most people tend to believe that art should be intensely personal and expressive, utilizing unique systems of personal symbolism and embedding meaning into color choice and stylistic decisions.
One of the most cliche axioms out there is “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” One of my favorite quotes from the WWII period which marked the end of Munch’s life is from British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, “when you’re going through Hell, keep on going.” Both of these quotes represent the Munch’s character to me. Instead of giving up a career in art when faced with having to become responsible for his family, he used his pain and struggle as the very subject of his painting. Van Gogh chose to escape his mental illness by suicide. Jackson Pollack succumb to his addictions. Munch had enough self-awareness, humility and courage to seek professional help for both his addictions and his mental illness.
At a public school I may not be able to directly quote 2 Corinthians 1:4 and tell students that “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” However, I can use Edvard Munch as an example of how we can derive meaning from our suffering and create purpose from our hardships. Munch shows me how just like steel is stronger than iron because it has gone through the fire, we can all become stronger from the challenges we have to face.
HERO #2: Civics Hero Senator James Grimes
Originally from New Hampshire, James Grimes moved West to practice law in what would become Burlington, Iowa. He served first in the Territorial and later State House of Representatives as well as as one of Iowa’s earliest Governors. He helped revise Iowa’s state constitution. As a member of the Whig party, he helped establish the fledgling Republican Party in Iowa in the 1850’s. As a member of the U.S. Senate, he served on the Joint Committee on Reconstruction which drafted the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Perhaps his greatest demonstration of character was as Iowa’s Senator, just after the Civil War. Grimes broke party ranks to oppose the removal from office of President Andrew Johnson after he was impeached. Johnson was a slave owning Democrat from Tennessee appointed Vice President by Lincoln in a symbolic demonstration that his administration represented the entire nation. Johnson sought to quickly reintegrate the Southern states back into the Union but faced fierce opposition from the radical wing of the Republican party who wanted to punish the secessionists.
Congress impeached Johnson for firing his Secretary of War. The Constitution requires that Presidential appointments be confirmed by the senate, but Congressional Republicans hastily passed a law requiring that he also seek approval before removing Cabinet members as well. Grimes saw the impeachment for what it was, an unprecedented abuse of Constitutional process for in a play for power in a political fight. He didn’t believe that Johnson, no matter how arrogant or inept, had not committed high crimes or misdemeanors.
Not only did he go against his own party, but at the expense of his own health Grimes tirelessly negotiated between Johnson and Senate members for a narrow acquittal vote. Grimes suffered a stroke two days before the final Senate vote and fell before reaching his desk as he entered the Senate the day the vote was taken. Even though the Supreme Court Justice gave him special permission to remain seated, Grimes mustered the strength to stand up and announce his “not guilty” vote. A year later, poor health forced him to resign his office and he passed away at home in Iowa at the age of only 55.
Grimes is an incredible example of integrity and commitment. He demonstrated enormous amounts of judgement, responsibility, courage and temperance. Grimes put the Nation’s well being before the goals of his party and sacrificed his potential re-election, not to mention his personal health and well being to preserve the Constitutionality and balance of power between the branches of government.
Grimes took responsibility for the integrity of our Constitutionally established system of government even though it meant standing up to peer pressure and standing up to prevent an unpopular person from being bullied. Even though he may have disagreed with the President on a variety of issues and even disliked him personally, he thought it was important to respect the dignity of his office and his right to due process of law and the protections provided by the law.
MS Civics Class Touchstone Creed:
We’re all responsible making this a learning space
We respect everyone’s rights & dignity
We show grit to grow & to try again when we fail
Everyone matters, everyone’s voice should be heard
Each year at Boyer Valley, we include a unit on Iowa History as part of our Civics class. Perhaps the greatest emphasis of the class is on the U.S. Constitution. In the Iowa unit, we also examine the Iowa Constitution. Some people describe Grimes as the James Madison of the Iowa Constitution. Talking about checks and balances between the three branches of government goes hand in hand with talking about Constitutional government. Not only are the Johnson, Nixon and Clinton impeachment attempts all part of history, but the impeachment/removal from office process is analogous to the Grand Jury/Trial Jury process in the criminal justice system.
Once we reach the Civil War/Politics portion ot the article on Iowa History written by an ISU professor which we use for the unit, I have students read and discuss an article from Iowa History magazine on Senator Grimes. This has been a terrific resource for launching discussions that Ryan & Bohlin might consider “moral discourses.” Students are asked to compare Grimes’ actions with Republican Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s negotiating with Richard Nixon and Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin’s address to the Senate in the wake of the Clinton impeachment.
I personally think that the 14th Amendment, which Grimes helped to craft, refocused the law on principles of equality and justice which the Constitution itself was intended to provide in the first place. I think that Grime’s example shows students that these aspects of our democratic republic require vigilance, commitment and sometimes sacrifice. To selfishly deny the rights of due process and equal protection to others for the sake of expedience endangers the equality, protection and processes for everyone, including ourselves.
Likewise a lack of integrity, judgement, responsibility, courage and temperance on our parts degrades those virtues in our collective community. When we contribute our character to the general welfare, we nurture these same traits in others. We repeat tales of Washington’s courage and Lincoln’s honesty in an effort to instill those virtues in our young. We regale kids with tales of Franklin’s ingenuity, Sam Adam’s aversion to tyranny and Patrick Henry’s audacity both to make kids proud of our moral heritage as Americans and to inspire a desire to belong to that heritage.
I’d hope that James Grime’s example would encourage students to become critical thinkers and readers so that they could scrutinize people’s motives and make choices which align more with their own principles than with objectives of parties or special interests. Better yet, to consider what’s in the best interest in the majority of the community, and not just what’s in their own personal interest or those of the subgroups with which they identify. In other words, stand up for what’s right, not just fight over who gets to be right in an argument.