The Continuing Relevance of a 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail'

PRINCESS ANNE, Md. - (Feb. 22, 2013) - Sherman Lambert credits his success as an attorney and pastor to the education he received in the 1970s at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore – and the kindness of a former employee.

“People will help you,” Lambert said. “Sometimes you don’t have to ask.”

Lambert delivered a powerful guest lecture Thursday at UMES on the “continuing relevance” of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The event was part of the university’s Black History Month programming and recognized the 50th anniversary of an important moment in the nation’s civil rights movement.

During a question-and-answer session, Lambert spotted his long-time friend, Norman Tilghman, in the audience. He shared how Tilghman, who was a housing director on campus, quietly paid an $80 bill for him during his senior year so he could graduate.

Their reunion Thursday was an opportunity for the 1974 alumnus to underscore one of the many lessons he attributes to King’s legacy: “We have to own the things we have gone through in our lives. Get connected. You can’t do it by yourself … but you have to keep pressing on.”

The “pay it forward” lesson learned as a UMES undergraduate guides Lambert today. A recent client, a college student unable to pay his tuition bill, moved Lambert to draw on Tilghman’s gesture four decades earlier to help the young man financially finish his education.

“When I told Mr. Tilghman all those years ago I couldn’t afford to repay him, he told me to ‘pass it on’,” said Lambert, who was born in Washington but grew up in York, Pa. following his parents’ divorce.

The smile on Tilghman’s face after Lambert’s lecture spoke volumes.

“It makes me feel very proud,” said Tilghman, a 1966 Maryland State College graduate, “It’s a joy seeing that young man succeed the way he has.”

Lambert was 15 when James Earl Ray assassinated King in Memphis in April 1968, but it wasn’t until he became an adult that Lambert gained an appreciation of the late civil rights leader’s impact on America. King’s advocacy of non-violent protests – sit-ins, boycotts and marches, he said, “were radical. They conflicted with the order of the day.”

In King’s day, white dominated legislatures were slow to correct social injustices, so churches played a key role in organizing, supporting and consoling participants in the civil rights movement who endured their share of dark days.

Lambert, who also is the senior pastor of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Pleasant Valley, Md., said “what happened many years ago is not unlike what is happening today.”

“The church’s role,” he said, wiping a bead of perspiration from his brow, “is to bring people back to integrity.”

Some churches, Lambert lamented, have drifted away from that mission since the height of King’s influence.

“The church has gotten quiet,” he said, “it doesn’t fight (against injustice) anymore.” “It’s important to understand the past and present, and not be afraid to fight in the future,” Lambert said.

K.J. McClay, a junior from San Diego, Calif., said Lambert’s message inspired him.

McClay was raised by grandparents, who he said share many of the life experiences Lambert spoke about during the lecture.

Lambert “had a very powerful message,” McClay said. “He showed me what I should strive for, and not overlook the lessons of the past.

After the lecture, Lambert and Tilghman embraced.

“Thank you for speaking to these young people,” Tilghman said, “and passing it on.”