Personal Experience in For Moral Clarity Don’t Look to Universities, Letter from Birmingham Jail
In both the Letter from Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and “For Moral Clarity, Don’t Look to Universities” by Dr. Chad Wellmon, personal narrative is used to create a moral crisis for the reader and awaken potential supporters. It was once said that an opportunity is a terrible thing to waste. “For Moral Clarity, Don’t Look to Universities” and the Letter from Birmingham Jail were written in response to acts of terrible racism. Rather than let the occurrences of hatred and bigotry fade from the collective memory, the authors chose to share their experiences and hold people accountable for their reactions. The pieces both call on the audience to listen to their moral compasses when they witness racism and act accordingly. The responses are powerful and offer a close, personal perspective to show the real impact of events like this.
Dr. King uses personal narrative to appeal to ethos and to trigger a moral awakening in the reader. Dr. King rejects the idea that it could be moral to ignore his cause. His opponents believed it is right to not support civil rights, thinking instead that “[Dr. King and his follower’s] actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence.” (King). Dr. King argues, however, “Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock?” (King). Dr. King equating himself and other civil rights activists with Socrates is no accident, either. The reader is meant to see the connection between Socrates, a pioneer for moral and philosophical thinking, and Dr. King and the movement for civil rights. Dr. King argues no moral, righteous society can accept “vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim” (King). As a society, he argues, must not accept institutionalized segregation and racism, and that “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.” (King). In the same way, throughout For Moral Clarity, Don’t Look to Universities Dr. Wellmon’s use of personal narrative aimed to blatantly show the immorality of racism to the reader. Dr. Wellmon opens with a description of his children ready for bed juxtaposed with the torches and chants of the white nationalists just outside his front door. The images of hatful white supremacy contrasted with the pureness and innocence of children highlights the moral wrongness of the issue. Dr. Wellmon details how as he “opened my kitchen door to chants and flickering lights” (Wellmon), he was confronted by the ethical heinousness of racism, and he uses personal narrative, like Dr. King, to confront the reader with it too. Racism and segregation are not simply political issues, they are moral ones each person must have an ethical position on. Dr. Wellmon’s personal response to racism at his home and place of work is inspiring and passionate, and reading about the struggle is poignantly distressing. Dr. King carefully chooses examples of white supremacy he has experienced to show the moral wrongness of such beliefs, and the actions that come with them.
To build the support he needs to prevent the continued abuse of the civil rights of black Americans, Dr. King needs emotional and moral urgency from groups who previously did not feel moved to become involved. It is not enough for these white moderates (whose support he needs) to see the moral wrongness of racism, for him to succeed they must become active in their condemnation of white supremacy. For many of these people, racism was not an evident part of their everyday lives. They existed in predominantly or entirely white places, speaking to and about white people, unconfronted by the hideousness of racism. These people were content, and therefore did not feel the need for change that Dr. King did. He acknowledges “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”” (King). It is easy for them to say “be patient” or to oppose direct action when they are able to close their eyes to the segregation and disrespect people who do not look like them experience. When Dr. King describes the urgency of the moral issue through how he and his family personally experience, it becomes impossible to remain patient. Dr. King chooses examples people can universally relate to. Every parent can see their child as he did when he was forced to let down his daughter and “see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children” (King). Every Christian can see themselves at church, and then feels his pain as he explains “I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership.” (King). Everyone can see the face of their parents through Dr. King’s example of how “your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”” (King). The detailed description of his personal experiences of racism in the American south make it impossible for any American to be patient for the removal of the moral disgustingness of segregation. Similarly, Dr. Wellmon instills the urgency in his audience. As he remarks “The contemporary university, at least in its local form in Charlottesville, seems institutionally incapable of moral clarity.” (Wellmon), he calls the reader to action. When institutions refuse to use their power and influential voices to explicitly condemn racism, it becomes the responsible of everyone else to hold them accountable for their complicity. Dr. Wellmon makes it clear that the University’s failure to name and condemn the white supremacists should outrage us all. By contrasting the University’s cool, unfeeling response to the hatred on its grounds with his pain and shock, Wellmon calls people everywhere to place themselves in the situation and become a part of the solution. Both author’s words bring everyone into their shoes, and paint a disturbing picture of prejudice and hate, real experiences they have had. With the images of loved ones under the boot of oppression fresh in their minds, it becomes much harder for the white moderate to turn a blind eye to the calls for their help in eradicating the evils of segregation. The pieces both call the reader to look into themselves and see in what way they are contributing to the problem and how they could instead contribute to the solution.
Furthermore, Dr. King and Dr. Wellmon share one particular similarity in their personal narratives, they both describe their faith. Since religion is significant to so many people, highlighting the impact on racism through spirituality was a well thought out call to stand up to racism through the audience’s faith based morals. As organized religion is a commonly accepted and followed moral code, highlighting the issues around this frame is crucial to show how these religious morals are antithetical to white supremacy. While Dr. King is much more straightforward in describing the role of religion on his campaign for civil rights (he was a religious scholar and a preacher, while Dr. Wellmon’s faith is only personal) both authors repeatedly referenced their religion as a reason for understanding the moral wrongness of racism. Society holds religion in a special regard in terms of morals, and crimes/atrocities committed against religious rules are particularly rousing to the public. By comparing the campaigners of civil rights to early christians, King shows how God supports their cause. Arguing that “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity” (King),Dr. King challenges the Church to do better, and to follow God’s word. When Dr. Wellmon discusses white supremacy with his children and states that “we spoke in the language of our faith tradition — in terms of the image of God, the church, and Christian love.” (Wellmon), he contrasts the message of God’s love with the hate of the white supremacists. People who were willing to ignore/do nothing about the racism they hear of in a broad sense may be impacted enough by the personal description of its effects in terms of religion to get involved in stopping the hatred. By including their faith in their personal narratives of racist and hateful events, Dr. King and Dr. Wellmon both effectively appeal to a broad audience, using the general non-denominational respect for spirituality to motivate the masses to get involved.
Overall, Dr. Chad Wellmon and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. carefully use personal narrative to clearly communicate with their audiences. Their selections of their personal experience are impactful and clearly illustrate the immoral heinousness of white supremacy and racism. They share the everyday and the extraordinary instances of bigotry in their lives, offering a new and detailed perspective. It is almost impossible to read either piece and not be moved by the shocking displays of hatred the authors face. Both turn the conversation from a potentially impersonal rendition of why racism is morally wrong into a personal detailed description of the real life impacts it has on people, and how immoral it would be to let the hatred and discrimination continue. The authors make clear that in terms of their personal experiences and faith, that a moral society can not accept racism. In conclusion, personal narrative is used in For Moral Clarity, Don’t Look to Universities and the Letter from Birmingham Jail to create a moral crisis for the reader and appeal to ethos and rouse potential supporters.
Rieder, Jonathan. Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation. (Bloomsbury Press, 2014)
Wellmon, Chad. “For Moral Clarity, Don’t Look to Universities.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, 14 Aug. 2017, www.chronicle.com/article/For-Moral-Clarity-Dont-Look/240921.