MLK: 9 Tips for Writers from Birmingham Jail

When arrested on the charge of parading without a permit, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote an extraordinary document: Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963. Although addressed to his fellow clergymen, I believe King's letter also serves as a call to action for writers everywhere. 

In the midst of watching Alabama's political drama play out on the news, I remembered King's letter from my college course in American Studies. I decided to re-read it. King's words felt like the ice bucket challenge from head to toe.

Letter from Birmingham Jail is rich in contextual layers. Longing for King's vision, leadership, integrity, empathy, and eloquence in our social discourse today, I re-read the letter a second and third time. 

Thinking about King as a writer speaking to writers, I believe his letter is a roadmap for challenging the visible and invisible vitriolic assaults on our freedoms. I invite you to read or re-read Letter from Birmingham Jail. Add your tips to this post. Share your thoughts in the comments!

9 Tips for Writers from Birmingham Jail

Tip #1: Safeguard Your Time. 

Quote: "Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas."

Takeaway: King's letter is his response to eight white clergymen who publicly cautioned King about his work. I think King's choice to begin the sentence with the word "seldom" illustrates his take-charge approach to his critics. He models for us how to control our time. Choose to engage serious critics, who through their own accomplishments, merit your time and attention. Addressing their challenges will broaden your audience. Everything else is noise. 

Tip #2: Cultivate a Broad Network. 

Quote: "I am here [Birmingham] because I have organizational ties here."

Takeaway: Following King's example, think beyond joining organizations all in the same niche. Think in terms of talents, insights, and skills. Look for opportunities where you can learn from others and where you can contribute to create something bigger than what exists now.    

Tip #3: Name Your Adversary. 

Quote: "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here."

Takeaway: We are born to serve each other, not to aggregate Twitter followers. Write to rid the world of the evil you see within it. Write as if the freedom of expression that you enjoy as a writer depends on it. It does.     

Tip #4: Be a Freedom Writer. 

Quote: "Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid."

Takeaway: There is a tendency in our digital age to package content (text, audio, video, etc.) only for the people who agree with our point of view. Under this paradigm, your audience grows through similarity and through your ruthless ability to take away audience from the competition. The pieces of the pie get smaller. The pie does not expand. Wherever people long for freedom, take your message outside of your comfort zone. Freedom, tolerance, love, these are the three ingredients that expand the pie. 

Tip #5: Collaborate for Revolutionary Change. 

Quote: "Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds." 

Takeaway: Choose to participate in writing projects where the scope is greater than any one individual. At Montclair University's Center for Cooperative Media, you will find six models of collaborative journalism that can apply easily to collaborations in nonfiction, fiction, or other creative projects. 

Tip #6: Don't Patronize. 

Quote: "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection." 

Takeaway: Show your interest in an issue by asking people sincere questions and listening with full attention. 

Tip #7: Today is the Right Time to Write. 

Quote: "Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right." 

Takeaway: Writing is a muscle. Make the time to write, every day. And do not underestimate the kinesthetic power of handwriting. Keep a handwritten journal of personal reflections. 

Tip #8: Acknowledge Courageous People. 

Quote: "I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some--such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle--have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms." 

Takeaway: Recognize the difference between a compliment and an acknowledgement. The focus of a compliment is on the person's result. An acknowledgement is much more powerful. An acknowledgement underscores the values and character of who the person is being in the world. Practice giving and receiving acknowledgments.  

Tip #9: Never Lose Hope. 

Quote: "Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty." 

Takeaway: The only way for a writer to lose hope is for that writer to make excuses for not writing, or to simply give up. Never give up your writing life.   

A Powerful Film

A realist, I appreciate that sitting quietly to read text is not always easy in our mobile world. Thanks to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University for making this powerful film of King's reading Letter from Birmingham Jail. You can watch, listen, and write a thoughtful note to share this film from anywhere. 

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