civil rights

ISU Reflects on King's Impact

Grace Barbic

Daily Vidette


Nothing compares to checking the calendar and realizing a three-day weekend is approaching. It is one extra day to sleep in, put off homework and avoid responsibilities before snapping back to reality and starting another busy week full of school and work.

Monday is a national holiday honoring not only the life and accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr., but everything that he stood for. It is a day dedicated to promoting the equality of all people regardless of race, ethnicity, culture or background, yet people fail to acknowledge that this day is actually dedicated to his service. 

Although that idea is what this day was intended to represent, it was not always seen that way. In fact, it was not until 2000 that all 50 states began to officially observe the third Monday in January as “Martin Luther King Jr. Day.” 

Shortly after King’s death, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. A few days after that, a bill was introduced to make MLK’s birthday a national holiday. It took 15 years for the bill to be signed into a law. Many believe this was because of the hatred and racism that plagues our country. 

This day is not only national holiday, but it is the only national holiday that is observed as a national day of service. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, MLK Day of Service is intended to empower individuals, strengthen communities, bridge barriers, create solutions to social problems and move us closer to King’s vision of a “Beloved Community.” 

For some, it may just be another day off of work, but for Illinois State’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, it is a day on. Graduate assistant for community service projects Paige Buschman thinks that this day is an opportunity for America to show that leadership and change can come in the form of something other than political action in the Senate and Congress, it can come from everyday people. 

“MLK was not particularly different than any one of us. I think he was just compelled to do something because he saw hate and injustice in the world and I think that’s just something everyone can learn from. The fact that we have a day off to, I think, reflect on that is so important,” Buschman said. 

She believes that this should be a day of learning and reflecting on how to move forward around issues of injustice in our country and that everyone should be thinking about non-violence, political action and engagement and civic engagement.

“That is very much at the core of what we do here at the center, but I think it’s something that everyone can benefit from,” Buschman continued. 

This year the center will be honoring this day of service by sorting through donations to find items to be sold at Home Sweet Home Ministries’ thrift store, Mission Mart. Home Sweet Home Ministries is a local, non-profit organization that provides shelter, rehousing and food services, among other things, to those in need in the Bloomington-Normal community. 

Along with their service, those involved will be reflecting on the nature of their work because of the importance of this day. There will also be a presentation to connect to MLK’s mission. The center’s major objective is always to help students understand how to make a change through service. 

The Office of the President, University Housing, the student chapter of the NAACP and the Association of Residence Halls will host a cultural dinner on Jan. 25 honoring MLK and featuring Michael Eric Dyson. Assistant Director of Media Relations Rachel Hatch believes that this event blends very well with the idea of celebrating cultures that are part of the university experience.

What better way to celebrate a man who was dedicated to his community and sacrificed his ability to make a profit than to give back to the community and offer service? Buschman also believes that in order to see social change, society needs to recognize that it is going to be through volunteerism, the giving of time and commitment to something that is not just about one’s job.

“Services benefit everybody. It benefits people in the community and you as a person. I think that was at the center of MLK’s mission as well. I think that is partially why it was changed to a day of service rather than just being a day off where people don’t come into work and don’t think more about it. The idea is you should be taking this time to do something that you might not otherwise be able to do,” Buschman said.

Although having a day off can be enticing, it is important to remember the sacrifice and struggle that MLK and millions of others faced to make a change. Instead of using this holiday as a day to relax and unwind, one may consider the significance of it and how everyone can play a part in making a difference by offering something that many people take for granted: time.

“I think that Martin Luther King’s ideals are really basic to the core values at ISU. The ideas of respect, diversity, inclusion, collaboration, these are all things that Dr. King pushed for. His life embodies that drive for civil rights and I think that it fits very well with ISU to celebrate that,” Hatch said.

The Letter: Litmus Test for '60s Clergy, Inspiration for B/N Leaders

The Letter from Birmingham Jail, also known as the Letter from Birmingham City Jail and The Negro Is Your Brother, was an open letter written on April 16, 1963, by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The letter defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism. It says that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action rather than waiting potentially forever for justice to come through the courts.


Responding to being referred to as an "outsider," King writes, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The letter, written during the 1963 Birmingham campaign became an important text for the American Civil Rights Movement. The Birmingham campaign began on April 3, 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.


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 trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me."

The letter responded to several criticisms made by the "A Call for Unity" clergymen, who agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not the streets. As a minister, King responded to these criticisms on religious grounds. As an activist challenging an entrenched social system, he argued on legal, political, and historical grounds. As an African American, he spoke of the country's oppression of black people, including himself. As an orator, he used many persuasive techniques to reach the hearts and minds of his audience. Altogether, King's letter was a powerful defense of the motivations, tactics, and goals of the Birmingham campaign and the Civil Rights Movement more generally.

King began the letter by responding to the criticism that he and his fellow activists were "outsiders" causing trouble in the streets of Birmingham. To this, King referred to his responsibility as the leader of the SCLC, which had numerous affiliated organizations throughout the South. "I was invited" by our Birmingham affiliate "because injustice is here," in what is probably the most racially divided city in the country, with its brutal police, unjust courts, and many "unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches." Referring to his belief that all communities and states were interrelated, King wrote, "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… Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."

King also warned that if white people successfully rejected his nonviolent activists as rabble-rousing outside agitators, this could encourage millions of African Americans to "seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies, a development that will lead inevitably to a frightening racial nightmare."

The clergymen also disapproved of tensions created by public actions such as sit-ins and marches. To this, King confirmed that he and his fellow demonstrators were indeed using nonviolent direct action in order to create "constructive" tension. This tension was intended to compel meaningful negotiation with the white power structure, without which true civil rights could never be achieved. Citing previous failed negotiations, King wrote that the black community was left with "no alternative." "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

The clergymen also disapproved of the timing of public actions. In response, King said that recent decisions by the SCLC to delay its efforts for tactical reasons showed they were behaving responsibly. He also referred to the broader scope of history, when "'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'" Declaring that African Americans had waited for these God-given and constitutional rights long enough, King quoted Chief Justice Earl Warren, who said in 1958 that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." Listing numerous ongoing injustices toward black people, including himself, King said, "Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.'"

Along similar lines, King also lamented the "myth concerning time," by which white moderates assumed that progress toward equal rights was inevitable, so assertive activism was unnecessary. King called it a "tragic misconception of time" to assume that its mere passage "will inevitably cure all ills." Progress takes time as well as the "tireless efforts" of dedicated people of good will.

Against the clergymen's assertion that demonstrations could be illegal, King argued that not only was civil disobedience justified in the face of unjust laws, but it was necessary and even patriotic. "I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."

King stated that an unjust law was a law that degraded a human personality. Citing Augustine of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich—and examples from the past and present—King described what makes laws just or unjust. For example, "A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law." Alabama has used "all sorts of devious methods" to deny its black citizens their right to vote and thus preserve its unjust laws and broader system of white supremacy. Segregation laws are immoral and unjust "because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority." Even some just laws, such as permit requirements for public marches, are unjust when used to uphold an unjust system.


King addressed the accusation that the Civil Rights Movement was "extreme," first disputing the label but then accepting it. Compared to other movements at the time, King finds himself as a moderate. However, in his devotion to his cause, King refers to himself as an extremist. Jesus and other great reformers were extremists: "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?" King's discussion of extremism implicitly responded to numerous "moderate" objections to the ongoing movement, such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's claim that he could not meet with civil rights leaders because doing so would require him to meet with the Ku Klux Klan.

King expressed general frustration with both white moderates and certain "opposing forces in the Negro community." He wrote that white moderates, including clergymen, posed a challenge comparable to that of white supremacists, in the sense that, "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." King asserted that the white church needed to take a principled stand or risk being "dismissed as an irrelevant social club." Regarding the black community, King wrote that we need not follow "the 'do-nothingism' of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist."

In closing the letter, King criticized the clergy's praise of the Birmingham police for maintaining order nonviolently. Recent public displays of nonviolence by the police were in stark contrast to their typical treatment of black people, and, as public relations, helped "to preserve the evil system of segregation." Not only is it wrong to use immoral means to achieve moral ends, but also "to use moral means to preserve immoral ends." Instead of the police, King praised the nonviolent demonstrators in Birmingham, "for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes."

King wrote the letter on the margins of a newspaper, which was the only paper available to him, and then gave bits and pieces of the letter to his lawyers to take back to movement headquarters, where the pastor Wyatt Tee Walker and his secretary Willie Pearl Mackey began compiling and editing the literary jigsaw puzzle.

An editor at The New York Times Magazine, Harvey Shapiro, asked King to write his letter for publication in the magazine, but the Times chose not to publish it. Extensive excerpts from the letter were published, without King's consent, on May 19, 1963, in the New York Post Sunday Magazine. The letter was first published as "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in the June 1963 issue of Liberation, the June 12, 1963, edition of The Christian Century, and in the June 24, 1963, issue of The New Leader. The letter gained more popularity as summer went on, and was reprinted in the July Atlantic Monthly as "The Negro Is Your Brother." King included a version of the full text in his 1964 book Why We Can't Wait.

Watterson Tribute To Parks Highlights Civil Rights Struggle

Tucked away in Watterson Towers, between the dining center and residence hall, is the newly renovated Rosa Parks Conference Room named after the courageous activist who refused to give up her seat on the bus and became the focal point of the Montgomery bus boycott. 

What was once just a room with a handful of plaques scattered across the walls, now has a magnificent mural highlighting the civil rights era.

Donald Reed, associate director of University Housing Services, was instrumental in helping complete the mural project. “We wanted to recognize the role Rosa Parks played during the early stages of the civil rights movement, in addition to telling the story of other civil rights leaders of that time,” he said.

The mural extends along the back wall of the room and recognizes key figures who contributed to what Rosa Parks did when paving the way to a more inclusive, democratic society. “The mural highlights organizations, activists, and politicians from Brown, to the protests like Montgomery, the March on Washington, Selma, to the great legislative victories of the civil rights movement such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” said Touré Reed, associate professor of African American history and Rosa Parks Room committee member.

In addition to Rosa Parks, the committee challenged themselves to include other female activists who contributed to the civil rights movement because men were often in the spotlight. “Many of us know Rosa Parks as well as Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall,” said Donald Reed. “We wanted to showcase a better balance of men and women on the mural.” He also noted that women were fighting for their rights just 30 years prior to the African American civil rights movement.

As part of the academic mission of the University, the wall was a collaborative effort between academics and student affairs. “We wanted this wall to be educational and for people to look and say ‘Oh, I didn’t know that,’” said Donald Reed. “For example, many people don’t know Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was originally titled ‘Normalcy No More,’ calling on the federal government to pursue full employment policies and raise the minimum wage, which is still at the center of our political discourse today,” he said.

As a result of the renovation, the room now has greater usability for the campus. There is technology available in the room, mirrors for dance groups, and a white board wall. “A lot of students, faculty, and staff use our spaces—so when they are in the space, we hope they will learn something,” said Director of University Housing Services Stacey Mwilambwe, who served on the Rosa Parks Room Committee.

The committee members who have been a part of the Rosa Parks Room transformation hope that visitors will be inspired. “I think many of those who take the time to gaze upon the walls in the new Rosa Parks Room will get something out of it—be it edification or just a warm feeling about the commitment that many staffers at our university have to both education and a fair and democratic society,” said Touré Reed.