AUGUSTA — For Randal Maurice Jelks, having a spiritual or an emotional connection to democracy is essential for democracy to work.

Jelks, a university professor, documentary producer and award-winning author, is the featured speaker Tuesday at the First Amendment Museum’s speaker series.

Randal Maurice Jelks Brian Kelly Photo

His latest book, “Letters to Martin: Meditations on Democracy in Black America,” was published in January.

The virtual talk is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Details on how to register for the Zoom event are available on the First Amendment Museum’s website — The event is free.

In an interview with the Kennebec Journal, Jelks said at its core, democracy, based on laws and the U.S. Constitution, is procedural. But because the procedures of democracy are vulnerable to manipulation, democracy cannot work without people having a deep, longing spiritual commitment to it.

“In this era, when everything is transactional, it’s important what we remember that there’s a deeper commitment to democracy that must occur,” Jelks said.


The seeds of the book were planted when Jelks was invited to present the Martin Luther King Jr. lecture in 2017 at Elmhurst University in Illinois.

“I really wanted to write an intimate portrayal of King that young people might gather hope from when they find themselves in a dissenting position,” he said. “The students received that really well.”

The result was “Letters to Martin: Meditations on Democracy in Black America.”

Jelks said he wanted to write letters about democracy from the perspective of a Black American to a Black American who attempted through civil protests to make the United States a more inclusive society.

In a world shaped by technology and the immediacy of electronic communications, he said, he deliberately chose a more intimate vehicle, and younger generations have responded to that.

“I appreciate a letter because it takes time to write a letter,” he said. “It’s not the instantaneous tweet. It’s not the instantaneous email. You have to do some mediations to write a letter. You have to take a step back and think about what you’re saying.”


Christian Cotz, chief executive officer of the First Amendment Museum at 184 State St., said the speaker series launched in January 2021, with 22 speaker events held during the year.

“One of the things that’s wonderful about the First Amendment is that it touches so many different subjects,” Cotz said, “and so many rabbit holes you can go down that are part of the First Amendment.”

For the speaker series, Cotz said, he and his staff members try to find people who are examples of those who have lived the museum’s motto: “Live your freedom.”

The series has invited artists, authors, civil rights activists, environmentalists, lawyers and people who have conducted First Amendment audits.

Perhaps no one has embodied the motto more than Martin Luther King Jr., Cotz said. When the First Amendment Museum’s staff members saw Jelks’s book was about to be published, they invited him to speak.

In a roundabout way, Jelks has a connection to Augusta through history and geography.

While now a professor at the University of Kansas, he is a native of New Orleans. He was in his native city in early January, when Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards granted a posthumous pardon for Homer Plessy, a Creole man whose 1892 arrest for refusing to leave a whites-only train car was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

The high court’s chief justice at the time was Augusta native Melville W. Fuller, whose court enshrined the “separate but equal” doctrine that ensured racial segregation for decades.

“I think of myself as a kid — I’m 65. I think of myself as a kid from New Orleans that had extraordinary opportunities and luck of the draw,” Jelks said. “I continue to want to think about these larger questions and write accessible books for people to think about the world around them.”

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