The Group

This was the second in a series of discussions with a group of 10 AmeriCorps members in the New England region.

The Program

The group read and discussed, "Letter from Birmingham Jail," by Martin Luther King, Jr.


The reading was chosen to address the question, Who is responsible for change? The group eased into the discussion just as easily as they had done in the previous session. The facilitator started the discussion with Martin Luther King’s reference to having been categorized as an extremist. He then asked, Do circumstances bring about extremists or vice versa? The group seemed to largely agree that circumstances brought about extremists, but there was no answer to satisfy everyone. The conversation soon prompted one member to ask the question, What is the difference between an extremist and an activist? A comment that received several nods was the idea that being an extremist meant working outside the accepted norm for what was perceived to be right. Some thought that there may not be a difference between the two, but many seemed to agree that even activists work within some sort of a norm.

The topic that dominated most of the discussion and kept resurfacing was related to the idea of being a moderate. In the reading, King admonishes the white moderates as being the greatest stumbling block toward freedom because they, who did not agree with the state of racism and the treatment of blacks in this country, stood by and did nothing to help stop it. The facilitator made sure everyone in the group was offered an opportunity to respond to this idea. Only one person declined. The members voiced a wide range of opinions and the discussion was rich.

The facilitator focused on two more topics for this session. One was King’s idea that segregation and separation are morally wrong. The facilitator directed our attention to the paragraph in which King says, “Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?” and asked people to comment. The second topic was the process King describes as the four basic steps to a nonviolent campaign. The facilitator asked the group about one of those steps, the self-purification process. One member pointed out that our own discussion sessions were a kind of self-purification process. I feel that for some members, this comment might have brought greater meaning to their purpose for participating in the conversation program.

This reading offered many provocative ideas and raised questions that could have filled several discussion sessions.

Final Thoughts

I checked in with one of the more quiet members of the group sometime after this second discussion. I learned that when silent, this person was deeply engaged, not bored or disengaged as I had feared. It was very useful to talk with this member to get a sense of how the conversations were going.

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