Daniel E. Ferguson, who taught in his native Birmingham, is now a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Here he reviews David Coleman’s “close reading” of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Coleman wants the reader to interpret the text without reference to his or her personal views. He demonstrates that this technique is designed to serve the needs of testing corporations, but disempowered and silences students who should be able to connect their lives to Dr. king’ s powerful words.

Ferguson writes:

“There is a grand irony in the last few minutes of the video when Coleman praises King for not just responding to what was in the clergymen’s letter, “but pointing out how critical is what’s not in the letter.” Why then, is it problematic to let students do the same, to let their world inform their reading? It was at this point that I wondered: What if King had done only a close reading of the letter from the Southern clergymen he was addressing? What if he did not allow his own reading of the world to inform his understanding of the white clergymen’s words? What leadership and wisdom would have been lost? Would he have been more sympathetic to their concern about “outside agitators” meddling with Birmingham’s affairs? It was King’s understanding of the world that led him to state, “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
Critical literacy argues that students’ sense of their own realities should never be treated as outside the meaning of a text. To do so is to infringe on their rights to literacy. In other words, literacy is a civil and human right; having your own experiences, knowledge, and opinions valued is a right as well. Despite praise for King’s rhetoric, Coleman promotes a system that creates outsiders of students in their own classrooms. “