Cover of “Five Letters From Prison That Have Changed the World” by Rodney Walker. (Amazon Pro Hub)Letters that have transformed the world have come from the very best persons and some of the very worst. Both categories are represented in “Five Letters From Prison That Have Changed The World,” by Rodney Walker, a U.S. history teacher.
Walker became interested in how letters from prison have changed the world because some letters reminded him of the eloquence of soliloquies. A soliloquy usually denotes a profound solo utterance of an actor in a drama. Walker says “prison, though punitive by design, can be an unexpected birthplace of self-reflection, self-discovery, illumination, and even transformation for a man’s unsettled soul.”
Of course, not all letters have been for mankind’s good and not everything written in prison has been in the form of letters. Although Walker says nothing positive about Hitler, he is included in the book because of the influence of “Mein Kampf,” which Hitler began writing while in prison.
Hitler and the Nazi party had led a coalition in an attempt to overthrow the German government. This insurrection had failed miserably and he was arrested. During the trial which followed, Hitler’s popularity increased as his passionate defense speeches were printed in the newspapers. Hitler was convicted and sentenced to prison, but he was released after only nine months. During his time in prison, Hitler dictated the first volume of “Mein Kampf.”
In his book, Rodney Walker reprints some passages of “Mein Kamph” which dehumanizes Jews and was used as racist propaganda. Hitler stressed that racial purity was an absolute necessity for a revitalized Germany.
Reading the portion of “Mein Kamph” in the book is excruciating painful. Hatred and anger jump out at the reader. People followed Hitler and his words certainly changed the world: His racist propaganda was used to justify slaughtering six million Jews.
Today, unfortunately, “Mein Kampf” has recently reached best-seller status in Germany. This makes me fearful. To quote George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was an African American Baptist minister and the most prominent leader of the civil rights movement during the 1960s. He was arrested and jailed during anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Alabama.
During his detention, he wrote the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” declaring the moral duty of individuals to disobey unjust laws. This was his response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight Southern white religious leaders. This letter is regarded as a landmark document of the civil rights movement.
Four months following King’s incarceration in the Birmingham jail, he helped launch the March on Washington, which became one of the largest civil rights events in the history of the movement. President John F. Kennedy reluctantly endorsed the march, although he feared the event would increase racial tensions. It did not. The March on Washington proved to be an extraordinary success.
The march was successful in pressuring the administration of John F. Kennedy to initiate a strong federal civil rights bill in Congress.
Paul of Tarsus
Paul was born as a Jew and a Roman citizen. Though initially he had been known to persecute Christians, after conversion, he became “Apostle to the Gentiles” (non-Jews).
Paul was taken to prison for protection from religious Jews who sought to take his life. In prison, Paul felt an urgent need to warn others against false teachers and to instruct them in the basics of godly living. He felt it was his job to keep heresy out of an early church which was vulnerable to other secular belief systems that were spreading.
Though the Roman government desperately attempted to put an end to the spread of Christianity, it could not. Wherever persecution of Christians increased, the religion appeared to spread even faster. The personal letters of Paul encouraged Christians to remain faithful while suffering persecution, and helped establish the early Christian church.
Nelson Mandela was a South African revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist. When apartheid—a system of racial segregation and economic discrimination—was established, he committed himself to its overthrow.
Mandela was imprisoned in 1962, and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiring to overthrow the state. In prison, Mandela smuggled out statements and letters to spark the continuing anti-apartheid movement. As the years passed, international pressure for Mandela’s release mounted. Mandela was told that he could go free if he renounced violence as a tool. Mandela chose to stay in jail because he wanted the government to declare a commitment to end the evil of apartheid.
On Sunday, Feb. 11, 1990, Mandela was released unconditionally from prison after 27 years. Following his release, Mandela supported the negotiations that would bring an end to the apartheid. He became the first post-apartheid president of South Africa.
A leader in the Indian campaign for home rule, Gandhi worked all his life to spread his own brand of passive resistance across India. Mohandas Gandhi fought for freedom in India. But he did not fight with weapons. He believed words and actions were more powerful than violence. People called him Mahatma, which means “Great Soul.”
Walker talks about when Gandhi was in prison opposing the new Indian constitution, which gave the country’s lowest classes their own separate political representation for a period of 70 years. Gandhi believed this constitution would permanently and unfairly divide India’s social classes.
A member of the more powerful caste, Gandhi nonetheless advocated for the emancipation of the untouchables, whom he called Harijans, or “Children of God.” He did not want to see the calculated degradation that the British would assign the lower caste to last for centuries.
Walker highlights this fact by including a letter in his book that Gandhi wrote saying that he would fast until he died from starvation if a separate electorate was established.
Turning to the present, Walker included a sixth letter—the powerful story of Sun Yi. In February 2008, just before the Beijing Olympics, Sun Yi was caught and arrested by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities during a raid. His so-called crime was that he believed in a spiritual practice called Falun Gong.
Falun Gong, based on ancient Chinese faiths of Buddhism and Taoism espouses the universal principles of truth, compassion, and forbearance. Falun Gong had been embraced by the CCP for its health benefits since the mid-1990s, but as it grew in popularity, the regime labeled it as a threat and then branded it an “evil cult,” causing its followers to practice underground.
Sun Yi was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in a Chinese labor camp, and exposed to extreme torture and psychological pressure to recant his faith.
At the labor camp, Sun Yi was tasked to assemble Halloween decorations to be exported and sold through American department stores. Under the terrible conditions of the camp’s slave labor, an idea occurred to him. He wrote a letter with the letters “SOS” in English and hid it inside a product box he’d assembled to tell the world about the abuses taking place in prison.
His heartbreaking letter told about his torture, and how Falun Gong prisoners suffer more punishment than others.
The scrap of paper traveled thousands of miles and was purchased by Julie Keith in Damascus, Oregon, near Portland. The box of decorations containing the letter languished in her home for two years before her 4-year-old daughter asked for a Halloween-themed birthday party. When Keith remembered the Halloween kit and retrieved it for her daughter, she found the note.
Keith took a photo of the note and contacted human rights organizations. After receiving little response from them, she did an interview at a local newspaper where the story would eventually run on the front page. Later there was also online exposure by a Chinese magazine that published an exposé about conditions inside Chinese prisons.
In 2010, Sun Yi was released from the labor camp and traveled to Indonesia where he would meet Keith face to face and exchange gifts. After Keith’s visit, however, Sun Yi was contacted by a suspected Chinese agent; two months later Yi died of a suspicious case of acute kidney failure. Despite a request from his ex-wife and sisters, there was no investigation into the cause of death. Sun Yi had lived an exemplary life and died after heroically telling the truth.
Today readers can find a documentary about Sun Yi’s story. It is called “Letter from Masanjia.” It is available online for free and on some television channels.
Unfortunately, the CCP regime’s persecution of Falun Gong did not end there but continues to this day.
‘Five Letters From Prison That Have Changed The World’
By Rodney Walker
Amazon Pro Hub, April 6, 2022
Paperback: 92 pages
Linda Wiegenfeld is a retired teacher.