Week Forty-One: “I Have a Dream” and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.


“I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr.


I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  -Martin Luther King, Jr.


Few speeches have been as often quoted or anthologized as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We would be remiss, in the study of the best short form literature available, if we didn’t include it on our reading list.

Happy Martin Luther King Day! Have you ever read the entire speech? This week we’ll be looking at speeches, letters and essays related to civil rights. Please share your thoughts with our group!

You can find King’s speech HERE.

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.



A recreation of King’s Jail Cell


If you found King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech meaningful, here is an OPTIONAL second Wednesday piece:

King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

‘The Birmingham campaign began on April 3, 1963, with coordinated marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. The nonviolent campaign was coordinated by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). On April 10, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.” Leaders of the campaign announced they would disobey the ruling. On April 12, King was roughly arrested with SCLC activist Ralph Abernathy, ACMHR and SCLC official Fred Shuttlesworth and other marchers, while thousands of African Americans dressed for Good Friday looked on.


You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”


King was met with unusually harsh conditions in the Birmingham jail. An ally smuggled in a newspaper from April 12, which contained “A Call for Unity”: a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods.

The letter provoked King, and he began to write a response on the newspaper itself. King writes in Why We Can’t Wait:

“Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trustee, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.” (Wikipedia)


for discussion: what elements of rhetoric does Martin Luther King Jr. use in his writing to persuade and excite the listener?


For Further Study . . .

Listen to “The Idea of Ancestry” by the poet Etheridge Knight, written from his jail cell in 1968.

The Idea of Ancestry

Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st & 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare
across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know
their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style,
they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me;
they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.
I have at one time or another been in love with my mother,
1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum),
and 5 cousins. I am now in love with a 7-yr-old niece
(she sends me letters written in large block print, and
her picture is the only one that smiles at me).
I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,
and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took
off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each year
when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in
the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93
and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates
(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no
place in her Bible for “whereabouts unknown.”
Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown
hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric
messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr / like a salmon quitting
the cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birthstream / I
hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my packet and a
monkey on my back. And I almost kicked it with the kinfolks.
I walked barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard / I smelled the old
land and the woods / I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men /
I flirted with the women / I had a ball till the caps ran out
and my habit came down. That night I looked at my grandmother
and split / my guts were screaming for junk / but I was almost
contented / I had almost caught up with me.
(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix.)
This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk
and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children
to float in the space between.                          -Etheridge Knight





And . . .check out The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

. . .A bit about Martin Luther King, Jr. . . .




Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1954 through 1968. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs and inspired by the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.


King became a civil rights activist early in his career. He led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, serving as its first president. With the SCLC, he led an unsuccessful 1962 struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia, and helped organize the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. He also helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.


King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. ] In 1965, he helped to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches, and the following year he and the SCLC took the movement north to Chicago to work on segregated housing. In the final years of his life, he expanded his focus to include opposition towards poverty and the Vietnam War, alienating many of his liberal allies with a 1967 speech titled “Beyond Vietnam”.


In 1968, King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. King’s death was followed by riots in many U.S. cities. Ray, who fled the country, was arrested two months later at London Heathrow Airport. Ray was sentenced to 99 years in prison for King’s murder, and died in 1998 from hepatitis while serving his sentence.


King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in numerous cities and states beginning in 1971, and as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor, and a county in Washington State was also rededicated for him. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 2011.¹



¹Source: Wikipedia


Week Thirteen: Mothers Writing Letters: “Désirée’s Baby” by Kate Chopin and “Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton



In honor of Mothers Day, here are rich stories about mothers and the theme of letters sent. In both “Désirée’s Baby” and “Roman Fever,” a mother (or soon-to-be mother) sends an epistle which will change the course of events of the characters’ lives.


“Désirée’s Baby” by Kate Chopin


The author Kate Chopin, often compared to Guy De Maupassant,
set her short stories in in the bayous and backwaters of New Orleans—a lush Creole world surrounded by Louisiana plantations prior to the American Civil War when slavery was still “lawful,”


image:enotes.com artist unknown

Chopin boldly and intentionally inventories the differences among the mixed inhabitants:
negro, dark, yellow, quadroon, fair, La Blanche, white . . .

. . .what effect does color have when a mother gives birth in old NOLA?

Here is “Désirée’s Baby,” a slight and deceptively simple story by Kate Chopin, published in 1893. Let us know your thoughts.

You can read it here.


Vocabulary Terms:

La Blanche –“the white one”

quadroon –a person of ¼ African-American descent

creole –a descendent of original French settlers in Louisiana; the term comes from the Spanish word criollo, meaning “a child of the colony

high yellow– a term for very light-skinned persons of African-American descent. It is a reference to the golden yellow skin tone of some mixed-race people. The term was in common use in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century.

miscegenation: Interbreeding between members of different races; marriage or cohabitation between members of different races, especially in the U.S., between a black person and a white person.


A bit about Kate Chopin . . .


Kate Chopin’s biography:
Chopin was born Katherine O’Flaherty in St. Louis into a prosperous Irish-American family and her upbringing, with its convent schools and debutante balls, was conventional for a young woman growing up in the post-civil war period. At nineteen she married Oscar Chopin, a cotton broker from New Orleans. After her husband experienced setbacks in business, she lived with him on a plantation near Natchitoches (pronounced “Nackatish”) , an area that provides the setting of the stories later collected in Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897). From her experiences there she absorbed a rich mixture of stories and dialects from the intermingled French and black cultures.katechopin
After her husband’s death in 1883, Chopin returned to St. Louis with her six children and began her literary career, soon placing stories and regional sketches in popular magazines such as Vogue. Much of her later work is remarkable for its frank depiction of woman’s sexuality, a subject rarely broached in the literature of the era, and Chopin became the subject of controversy after the appearance of The Awakening. The negative reception of that work caused Chopin to suffer both professional and social ostracism; her work was removed from libraries and Chopin was obliged to drop her membership in several St. Louis clubs. The scandal surrounding The Awakening effectively ended her active career as a writer, and she published little until her death five years later.


For more on Racial Distinctions:

The Strange History of the American Quadroon by Emily Clark pertains more to the Revolutionary War era but the information on Quadroon culture is worthwhile.

An article in the Huffington Post explores it

For more on Kate Chopin:

The International Kate Chopin Society


Works Available Online

“The Story of an Hour” (1894)
“A Pair of Silk Stockings “
Desiree’s Baby (in collection with other stories)
Desiree’s Baby (this story only)
“Regret,Century 50 (n.s. 28) (May 1895): 147-49.  (Page images at MOA)
“Ozeme’s Holiday,”  Century 52 (n.s.30) (Aug. 1896): 629-31 (Page images at MOA)
“I Opened All the Portals Wide” (poem; Century 58 (July 1899): 361-362 (Page images at MOA)
“Tante Cat’rinette” Atlantic 74 (September 1894): 368-373. (Page images at MOA)

The Awakening 

Bayou Folk (1894) at the University of North Carolina includes the following stories:

A Night in Acadie (1897) at the University of North Carolina contains the following stories:


“Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton


The author Edith Wharton adeptly depicts the seething emotions under the starched and corseted members of her society which inevitably surface.
Wharton portrays families such as the Astors and the Vanderbilts at the height of the social ladder; there are also the ‘arrivistes’ who come from old names and old money, earning their fortunes more recently; often richer than the aristocrats.
They entertained themselves by going to the theater and opera, by attending lunches and house parties, and by traveling abroad . . .
Sometimes it’s when travelling abroad that the true passions of the aristocracy are finally exposed.
And it’s while traveling abroad that we are first introduced to two mothers: Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley:
The two women simply dine together on the terrace of a restaurant in Rome. What could possibly be revealed on such a lovely day?

Here is “Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton.


A bit about Edith Wharton . . .


Edith Wharton moved to Paris in the early 1900s. Not long after, in 1913, after her affair with Morton Fullerton had ended, she divorced her husband of more than 20 years. (source: North Country Public Radio)

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was born into a tightly controlled society at a time when women were discouraged from achieving anything beyond a proper marriage. Wharton broke through these strictures to become one of America’s greatest writers. Author of The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, and The House of Mirth, she wrote over 40 books in 40 years, including authoritative works on architecture, gardens, interior design, and travel. She was the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Yale University, and a full membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.¹


For information on The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home:


Additional Reading:

Edith Wharton at Home: Life at The Mount by Richard Guy Wilson (2012)

My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann edited by Irene Goldman-Price (2012)



Novellas and novelette


Short Stories


As editor



Bonus material: A letter from Bette Davis to her daughter:




To round out our week on the theme of mothers, letters written, and regrets, here’s one from Hollywood icon Bette Davis to her daughter.

The actress Bette Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983. After surgery she experienced a number of strokes which left her partially paralyzed. Then, in 1985, her daughter, Barbara, published a controversial book, titled My Mother’s Keeper, that exposed their rumored troubled relationship and painted Davis in a terrible light. Two years later, Bette Davis published her own memoirs—at the very end was this letter to her daughter:

Dear Hyman,

You ended your book with a letter to me. I have decided to do the same.

There is no doubt you have a great potential as a writer of fiction. You have always been a great storyteller. I have often, lo these many years, said to you, “B.D., that is not the way it was. You are imagining things.”

Many of the scenes in your book I have played on the screen. It could be you have confused the “me” on the screen with “me” who is your mother.

I have violent objections to your quotes of mine regarding actors I have worked with. For the most part, you have cruelly misquoted me. Ustinov I was thrilled to work with and I have great admiration of him as a person and as an actor. You have stated correctly my reactions to working with Faye Dunaway. She was a most exasperating co-star. But to quote me as having said Sir Laurence Olivier was not a good actor is most certainly one of the figments of your imagination. Few actors have ever reached the towering heights of his performances.

You constantly inform people that you wrote this book to help me understand you and your way of life better. Your goal was not reached. I am now utterly confused as to who you are or what your way of life is.

The sum total of your having written this book is a glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the very privileged life I feel you have been given.

In one of your many interviews while publicizing your book, you said if you sell your book to TV you feel Glenda Jackson should play me. I would hope you would be courteous enough to ask me to play myself.

I have much to quarrel about in your book. I choose to ignore most of it. But not the pathetic creature you claim I have been because of the fact that I did not play Scarlett in “Gone With the Wind.” I could have, but turned it down. Mr. Selznick attempted to get permission from my boss, Jack Warner, to borrow Errol Flynn and Bette Davis to play Rhett Butler and Scarlett. I refused because I felt Errol was not good casting for Rhett. At that time only Clark Gable was right. Therefore, dear Hyman, send me not back to Tara, rather send me back to Witch Way, our home on the beautiful coast of Maine where once lived a beautiful human being by the name of B.D., not Hyman.

As you ended your letter in “My Mother’s Keeper” — it’s up to you now, Ruth Elizabeth — I am ending my letter to you the same way: It’s up to you now, Hyman.

Ruth Elizabeth

P.S. I hope someday I will understand the title “My Mother’s Keeper.” If it refers to money, if my memory serves me right, I’ve been your keeper all these many years. I am continuing to do so, as my name has made your book about me a success.²


¹Information from the official website for The Mount, Wharton’s home.

²Letter seen in Letters of Note by Shawn Usher (Public Library)Chronicle Books (May 6, 2014).