Letter from a Birmingham Jail: Reading As a Remedy for Racial Bias

Martin Luther King Birmingham JailReading as a Remedy to Racism

Many years of voracious reading have taught me that reaching a truly objective level of understanding about reality is unlikely. Still, even though I think the chances for complete objectivity are slim, my enthusiasm for pursuing impartiality remains intact because the persistent searching prevents rigidity, complacency, and cynicism. Sometimes real progress is measurable, and the quest is exhilarating.

Elsewhere I have written that books are but perspectives—the more of them you read, the larger your own perspective becomes. I maintain that the very quality of the future depends upon our ability to achieve a perspective of maturity, and this is a fundamental requirement for getting beyond racism. First, let me provide some history.

I grew up in Texas and Oklahoma in the 1940s and ’50s. In those days, the cultural expectations of what a person was supposed to do in life were simple. They were immediately apparent when your behavior was in some way unacceptable, but vague when you considered all of the possible things you might do, given talent and opportunity. But bias and blatant racial and ethnic prejudice were so ubiquitous in the communities where I lived that a social climate existed analogous to a thick fog of contempt for differences or otherness, especially racial differences.

I use this analogy to make the point that a lifetime of reading can be, in essence, a lifting and thinning of cultural fog and a platform for inclusiveness. While we can never rid ourselves completely of our cultural upbringing, nor would we likely want to abandon everything about it, the perspective made possible by reading is such that civilization itself could be said to depend on the kind of thinking that reading accomplishes.

Cultural expectations in our youth are so pervasive that we remain unaware they even exist; they seem merely to reflect reality—the way things are. As we age, we are able to see farther, primarily from our depth of experience. The first dissonant clues about our cultural reality arise when we begin to realize that the grownups in our midst, namely our parents and grandparents, are mere mortals, subject to the same human frailties as the rest of humanity.

Then, in time, if we are truly observant and reflective, we begin to apply the same critical lens to the groups we belong to and to our respective political and geographical allegiances. Traveling the world is a big help to gaining perspective, but nothing serves us better than extensive reading and reflecting on what we’ve read because of the thoughtfulness involved in the process.

It’s far too easy to learn to inhabit a local worldview—a narrow outlook that is familiar, dependable, and comforting but ultimately destructive to the very idea of expanding human relations. Thus, for many fearful people it becomes necessary to maintain a restricted viewpoint that requires avoidance of outside opinion and a distrust of change and uncertainty. When the citizens of any culture become uneasy about gaining knowledge, new information is subject to being censored, ignored, or banished. That’s why anti-intellectualism is ubiquitous.

I grew up with a sheltered worldview much in agreement with the same politics and prejudices of my community. It was a world of black-and-white notions of morality, and it was a literal interpretation of racial superiority that white was right. I experienced my first serious dissonance to this rigid ultraconservative worldview when I joined the Marine Corps in 1960. It was a subtle unraveling over a four-year period of service in which I was witness to young men of all races and from all regions of the country and from all sorts of backgrounds, many of whom, in spite of conventional stereotypical assumptions of inferiority, proved to be natural-born leaders. Black, white, brown, red, or yellow—race just didn’t seem to matter. Individual character did.

After four years in the Marines, I joined the Dallas police department, a bit more open-minded about race than what I had grown up with, but still far from being free of racial bias. The next cultural dissonance I recall was the result of reading sociology texts in a college class on police science and administration. The fog was still thick, but beginning to lift as I entertained other viewpoints, many of which seemed superior to my own.

A few years later, I read The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant and The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler. I was so taken with these works that I read each one several times in quick succession. By then, the fog was really thinning. Durant’s book put my regional outlook into a global perspective with ideas so profound that they made the whole range of my prevailing cultural assumptions seem arbitrary and ill thought-out. For Toffler, it wasn’t the accuracy of his observations about what was going on in the world that I found compelling so much as his ambition to explain it in big-picture fashion.

It was about this time that I read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which I still view as one of the most dissonant and stunningly insightful moments of reading I have ever experienced. King’s letter, laying out the absurdity of the tired old argument that always claims it’s too early to push for desegregation, shattered the remains of my regional worldview and its justification for racial segregation. Since then, I have been a ravenous reader.

Ironically some of the writers I admire most warned obsessively about being overinfluenced by books, while being careful not to reveal that they were themselves voracious readers. In my view, the point of reading is to move beyond the works one is reading to an enriched perspective that will equal or surpass the author’s, and not to become so enamored with a work that it blots out the need for further inquiry. Frequently I encounter individuals who don’t read very much and thus become overly influenced by a particular book simply because they have too little to compare it to.

One of the important lessons I’ve learned about reading is the value of rereading. Every time I reread a book that I once felt was very important, the effect is startling. It happens without fail, and yet I always wonder why it took me so long to do it again. The books that are important to reread are the ones we thought were profound and that influenced us the first time we read them.

Rereading after some years have passed is doubly rewarding for reasons I’ve seldom heard discussed. But to me it seems evident when you consider that long after we have been moved by new ideas, our subconscious continues to kick them around and to ruminate on them for years as they become a part of our repertoire of comprehension. With regard to racial prejudice, in particular, the best part is that, if you have made genuine progress in learning about the absurdity of such behavior, the rereading will make you wonder how you were ever naïve enough to have held such views in the first place.

Charles HayesReacquainting ourselves with the original presentation of an idea is an invitation to the subconscious to make our quiet deliberation become clear to us as never before. All we needed was the right kind of reminder, since the first time we encountered these ideas, we were barely ready for them. That’s why they impressed us in the beginning.

As we begin the new year this January, we can let Martin Luther King’s birthday on the 17th be the day we resolve to rid ourselves of the reflexive bias that we unwittingly internalized growing up without realizing we have done so. A good place to start is with King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Charles D. Hayes

Originally published 8 January 2011



  1. Ryder says

    Happy MLK day!

    I have great respect for the thoughtful and courageous man that he was.

    Sadly, in the wake of his brilliant letter, few black leaders today could muster such a clear presentation. This is a tragedy.

    And Mr. Hayes furthers the tragedy by presenting us with a world view that misses the mark… shallow in its examination of the human condition and racial bias. Absent from his examination are the true causes of bias. He chalks them up as stereotypes taught us in our youth, when a significant if not dominant source of bias is in adulthood. My biases are almost entirely informed by my adult years.

    If this is not understood by Mr. Hayes and other progressive thinkers, then we are a long, long way from meaningful discourse and appropriate change.

    Why would Mr. Hayes, and so many others cut from the same cloth, fail in precisely the same way? Is it perhaps that the sources that build bias are far more difficult and uncomfortable to address? I strongly suspect so.

    When Jesse Jackson admitted: “There is nothing more painful for me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start to think about robbery and then look around and see it’s somebody white and feel relieved.”

    Black cab drivers admit to refusing to let young black men ride in their cabs.

    You can’t do as Mr. Hayes has done, and simply chalk this up to “Cultural expectations in our youth”, for certainly you can’t pin this on Jackson and black cabbies.

    Of course this shatters Mr. Hayes’ fragile template.

    • Charles D. Hayes says

      As a general rule I don’t comment on responses to my own posts. I just say my piece and let it go. But this qualifies as one of the dumbest responses I’ve ever received. Ryder your talents are wasted here you could be a department head at Beck University.

      • Ryder says

        I’m honored… and also know that to extract an ad-hominem from you like this, means that I hit the mark… The truth does indeed, hurt.

        You have no explanation for the words of the Reverend Jackson, the man that held the head of Mr. King on that most tragic day… You have no explanation for the black cab drivers that lock their doors as young black fares approach their cab.

        Because you have no explanation for this, and because you repeat only the most shallow and now many decades old explanations for why we act as we do… (cultural hand-me downs of youth), makes clear to me that you have no real desire to face the difficult issues… the things that make Reverend Jackson say what he said… the significant sources of bias that you chose not to illuminate.

        Your comfort zone is in the easy explanation that rednecks raise their kids to negatively judge others by their group affiliation. What a supreme irony.

        • Charles D. Hayes says

          People who have a modicum of understanding about the psychology of prejudice know that it is human nature to
          judge oneself by commonly accepted standards whether one agrees with them or not.
          A cursory look at Ryder posts shows that you try to present yourself as all knowing, all seeing, and as the only one who fully understands, whatever it is you are commenting on. What you clearly don’t understand and seem to have no capacity to understand is your own irrational and delusional bias.

          • Ryder says

            re: community standards biases…

            Of course. Nobody has suggested otherwise.

            What I have said, is that a significant source of racial bias, and possibly the largest source, can NOT be seen to come from community standards.

            I highlight this by showing the racial bias of blacks against blacks… and also my personal experience that my biases are almost fully informed by my adult experiences, and not the gentle indoctrination of culture. My culture biased me one way, my experience biased me another.

            What I have highlighted is that this powerful source was completely ignored by you… and I posit that it is because it is too difficult to face.

            You still have no answer to the observations made by Jackson, and until you do, I really can’t say you’re seriously engaging the issue.

            And anyone that has modicum of understanding of psychology knows that the human brain operates on prejudice… that it is central to brain function when responding to what it perceives. It is fully unavoidable. Our brains make nearly instant associations with sensory input and immediately begin reaching conclusions in mere milliseconds. The human brain can recognize the subject of a photograph in only 13 milliseconds.

            It is literally what the brain is evolved to do. It can not be eliminated because it is the basic structure of our brains… and is in fact a strong asset. Being able to make judgements with truncated, incomplete or fuzzy data is partly how humans are as successful as they are.

            In short, the ability to pre-judge is with us, and will be there forever, as it is the literal nature of our brain.

            The question is: what are the sources of prejudice, especially prejudice that does not serve us well.

            That is the realm of you article.

  2. Patricia Abdullah says

    A truly wonderful piece which very accurately describes the joyful privilege of being literate and educated! It makes one think about the lack of such an opportunity for so many American children in these times of standardized testing and teaching to a test, and the need to work harder to secure liberal education for all. Being a reader and, therefore, a thinker is one of the greatest blessings one could receive in life. Being able to live a long life with an ever-expanding perspective is another. Keep reading! Thank you for the article.

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