Episode 622: Write Long Letters, Think Long Thoughts, and Pray Long Prayers

On the Overthinking It Podcast, we present Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

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Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Matthew Wrather read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

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5 Comments on “Episode 622: Write Long Letters, Think Long Thoughts, and Pray Long Prayers”

  1. Margo #

    Fantastic reading. Thank you so much.


  2. John C Member #

    This was an excellent choice, both in being less comforting to the “calling me racist is the real racism” crowd than the “I Have a Dream” genre (which, yes, is less comforting in full) and in being well-suited to your own voices.

    It also brings up a point that I’ve been thinking about a lot, in recent years: We desperately need a more inclusive literary and cinematic canon, not to mention better coverage of history.

    Some books like William Wells Brown’s Clotel (a “torn from the headlines” novel riffing on the rumors of Thomas Jefferson’s then-alleged relationships with the slave we now know as Sally Hemmings) is known in some circles, but Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative (nothing to do with Ian Fleming) was only discovered as a handwritten manuscript in 2012. And I haven’t the foggiest idea where I would even begin for classic fiction OUTSIDE of North America and Europe beyond China’s Four (or sometimes Six) Classic Novels. Or even Asian Americans, who appear to have been aggressively ignored for decades, without so much as a soundbite from even the “token Asian interviewed about Asian things” folks the newspapers used.

    Movie-wise, Oscar Michaux’s Within Our Gates (1920) is a good example, as it was specifically created in response to The Birth of a Nation (1915)’s atrocious attempt to rewrite history. It’s part of the “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” series that Netflix used to carry, but now seems to just be available on physical media. I suspect a lot of what exists is in that set (which is well worth watching), just because it would’ve been hard for a team of black people to get a movie produced until much more recently.

    Then, as for history, due largely to the success of HBO’s Watchmen, non-black people have some sense of the Tulsa Race Massacre (where a bunch of white people just decided that the local black community was too prosperous for their tastes), which astonishingly hit its ninety-ninth anniversary yesterday and today (May 31st and June 1st). It goes to show that the times are pretty precedented, but we’ve just all been able to ignore the horrors until now. It also goes to show that we’re better off getting history lessons from television shows about superheroes than most history books, I guess.

    After all–and I realize that I’m rambling, at this point–I think the push for women in STEM fields has proven that it’s a huge problem when we don’t have a diverse range of examples to show kids. So, it’d be nice to have more examples to show alongside the Shakespeares and the Dickenses to show a range of experiences beyond what “not wealthy, but definitely not poor and trying to curry favor with wealthy folks, white guys” easily envisioned. We also need to know where we came from (especially policing, which has five separate origin stories that I could find, all of them terrible) to get any sense of where we can go.

    But I also want to point out that we saw signs of massive progress, this week, too. I believe the trend started in Camden, NJ, which recently overhauled a lot of its definition of policing, but quite a few other cities around the country also chose to stand with the protesters. There isn’t a single city where Dr. King could have gotten that kind of respect and feels like it was unthinkable even five years ago. So, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, assuming that one doesn’t (completely hypothetically and certainly not referring to any real-world crybaby) opt to cower in a bunker and rant about domination instead of watching what’s going on…


  3. Margo #

    Remember the podcast you did awhile back on Demolition Man? That seemingly silly film had some rather profound insights on how policeing can be made better and less voilent.


  4. Three Act Destructure #

    I can’t think of a more appropriate reading at this time. Thank you for providing this spotlight to a piece which has remained relevant not only as a part of our shared history but, sadly, an examination of a country which has made little in the way of progress since the twentieth century. The only thing I have to share in return are the lyrics to a Gil Scott-Heron song from the 1970s which also remains, to our collective shame, relevant:

    You explained it to me I must admit
    But just for the record you were talkin’ shit
    Y’all rap about no knock bein’ legislated
    For the people you’ve always hated
    In this hell hole you, we, call home
    No knock, the man will say
    To keep that man from beating his wife
    No knock, the man will say
    To keep people from themselves
    No knockin’, head-rockin’, inter-shockin’
    Shootin’, cussin’, killin’, cryin’, lyin’
    And bein’ white
    No knock
    No knocked on my brother Fred Hampton
    Bullet holes all over the place
    No knocked on my brother Michael Harris
    And jammed a shotgun against his skull
    For my protection?
    Who’s gonna protect me from you?
    The likes of you?
    The nerve of you?
    Your tomato face deadpan
    Your dead hands ending another freedom fan
    No knockin’, head rockin’, inter-shockin’
    Shootin’, cussin’, killin’, cryin’, lyin’
    And bein’ white
    But if you’re wise, no knocker
    You’ll tell your no-knockin’ lackeys
    No knock on my brother’s head
    No knock on my sister’s head
    No knock on my brother’s head
    No knock on my sister’s head
    And double lock your door
    Because soon someone may be no-knockin’
    Ha, ha!
    For you


  5. Liffer Member #

    I know I’m late to commenting; sorry. (We are exhausted, constantly … we miss daycare.)

    This was a fantastic work of podcast art, which is all the more notable because the key text isn’t even yours. Thank you.

    I think the last time I really engaged with Letter from a Birmingham Jail was in high school and, at the time (as a white male in a predominately white community), it did not significantly challenge me. (I also think we only read excerpts, which always diminishes the impact of powerful works.)

    This is all the more embarrassing, personally, because in 2015 I spent nearly 3 months living not far away in Montgomery, AL for work … overlapping President Obama’s visit to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. I didn’t read up on the history then. I grew up in the town that Coretta Scott King attended college in, but that was an interesting bit of trivia to me, not an impetus for research into my white privilege.

    We can always try to be better and Dr. King’s words don’t seem to demand any more than that. Now as a father of young children, I really do hope I can be better. But racism is pernicious … most of our friends are white (by circumstance and privilege, not design) and while our neighborhood is somewhat mixed, social isolation makes it hard for our toddlers to meaningfully interact with people outside “the bubble”.

    The Letter is that rare historical artifact that both clearly explains the situation of the contemporary society and also eerily applies to the present day (or, perhaps, that’s because we haven’t advanced very far since it was written). In either case, it was an excellent choice for the podcast, and I enjoyed the hosts’ discussion of how (if at all) its messages applied to them. We can all retain our individual cultural identities while also recognizing that racism (particularly white-against-black prejudice) persists in the US.


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