GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Dr. Randal Maurice Jelks considers himself, perhaps, the last of the letter-writing generation. “Letters are intimate…people don't write letters anymore,” says Jelks. “I'm writing these letters to help us think about the very period in which we are living in the very transitional moments that we are living in.”
In his newest book, Letters to Martin: Meditations on Democracy in Black America, Jelks, a historian and professor who calls Grand Rapids home, writes 12 letters, or, as he calls them, “meditations,” addressed to the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Jelks frames his own experiences to that of Dr. King’s, expands on the Civil Rights hero’s words and lays out concerns with the state of American democracy, while also inspiring the next generation, the ones who might not write letters.
“I wanted to write something I thought would be inspirational, coming out of my own journey, as a person, as a child who's born in the South in the mid-1950s and growing up, until high school, and then we moved to Chicago but even there, there were still the ongoing struggles for democracy,” Jelks reflected.
Struggles like economic inequality and the fight for voting rights, some of the issues many are still fighting for.
“I think Americans think about democracy solely as procedural, and that's important. But democracy is really, at the heart of it... you have to assent to democracy; you have to make a commitment to it,” says Jelks.
But Jelks says there’s hope in that commitment and the struggles to get there. “Struggle is sometimes good.”
“Struggle is something positive. We have disagreements in the society. But we have to come to terms with: How are we going to do this? Are we going to just run over each other? Or we are going to have conversations about the many levels where we feel included and excluded.”
Jelks is an award-winning author, former professor at Calvin University and currently teaches African-American Studies and American Studies at the University of Kansas.
You can find his latest book at Books and Mortar in Grand Rapids, Amazon or at the Grand Rapids Public Library.
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