Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the Letter from Birmingham Jail

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Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is arguably the most important written document of the civil rights protest era and a widely read modern literary classic. Personally addressed to eight white Birmingham clergy who sought to avoid violence by publicly discouraging King's civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, the nationally published "Letter" captured the essence of the struggle for racial equality and provided a blistering critique of the gradualist approach to racial justice. The ...
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Overview

Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is arguably the most important written document of the civil rights protest era and a widely read modern literary classic. Personally addressed to eight white Birmingham clergy who sought to avoid violence by publicly discouraging King's civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, the nationally published "Letter" captured the essence of the struggle for racial equality and provided a blistering critique of the gradualist approach to racial justice. The "Letter" soon became part of American folklore, and the image of King penning his epistle from a prison cell remains among the most moving of the era. Yet, as S. Jonathan Bass explains in the first comprehensive history of King's "Letter," this image and the piece's literary appeal conceal a much more complex tale.

Here is the story of how King and his associates carefully planned, composed, edited, and distributed the "Letter" as a public relations document; of the media's enthusiastic response to it; and of this single document's immense impact on the civil rights movement, the eight white clergy, and the American public. As Bass goes beyond shallow headlines and popular myths to uncover the true story behind the letter, Martin Luther King Jr. emerges as a pragmatist who skillfully used the mass media in his efforts to end racial injustice.

In separate biographies of each of the eight ministers, Bass investigates the backgrounds, individual reactions to the "Letter," and subsequent careers of the men who were vilified as misguided opponents of Martin Luther King. Understanding their viewpoints and examining their lives reveals much about the role of the church and the synagogue during the civil rights era. Although they agreed on a few moral and ethical principles and signed joint public statements, the eight clergy had conflicting and often evolving ideas about civil rights and race relations, just like most southerners. Though chided in the "Letter," most of the eight ministers, Bass explains, shared King's goals of racial justice, but disagreed with him on how best to achieve them-a position in line with most mainstream religious and political leaders of the time.

In demonstrating how the racial dilemma trapped self-styled gradualists and moderates between integrationists and segregationists, Blessed Are the Peacemakers clearly exposes the complexity of southern race relations in the turbulent decades of the 1950s and 1960s.

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What People Are Saying

Dan T. Carter
In Blessed Are the Peacemakers, Jonathan Bass offers new insights into the civil rights struggles of the 1960s by subtly illuminating the complex motives and differing perspectives of the eight 'moderate' Birmingham religious leaders condemned by Martin Luther King Jr. in his 'Letter from Birmingham Jail.
— (Dan T. Carter, author of The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics)
E. Culpepper Clark
Jonathan Bass has produced the first full account of Dr. King's famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and combines the disciplines of history, religion, and journalism to show its mediated context. For the first time, we get a look at the complex elements of the 'Letter's' production and a substantive challenge to the lore that surrounds its creation. In this superbly crafted account, King's role is not diminished, but is explained.
— (E. Culpepper Clark, author of The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation's Last Stand at the University of Alabama)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807126554
  • Publisher: Louisiana State University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2001
  • Pages: 322
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.17 (d)

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2001

    Well Worth Reading

    I am not a disinterested reader. I followed this book to publication and provided some background information and some hopefully constructive prepublication criticism. Nonetheless, pending review of the book as published, I held by breath; for to me, the public persona of eight very decent men of good will (one of whom was my father) to some degree from my perspective would be impacted by what was published. Why? Because Dr. Martin Luther King's revered 'Letter From the Birmingham Jail' was addressed to these eight individuals; and from that fact alone, much was assumed, though little was written about these eight men. And there were those who would say, even with such limited knowledge, that these men should be damned to eternity. In contrast, a great deal has been written and, deservedly so, both about the Letter and its author. As relates to the Letter though, analysis, for all practicable purposes stopped at its four corners. A segment of a most troublesome, yet extremely significant event in the history of the civil rights movement remained untold. Though Blessed Are The Peacemakers no doubt has imperfections, it provides a significant historical perspective long in coming, but perhaps worth the wait. While recognition of the Letter and the accomplishments of its author in Birmingham are legion, there were others at the same time in the same place and with similar goals who contributed much as well. There were those so involved operating from a different perspective who also were working toward a community of brotherhood in the same highly charged atmosphere where a racist police chief held sway, and groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, National States Rights Party, and White Citizens Council made their presence felt through what some might describe as a reign of terror, which even 40 plus years later is difficult to fathom. S. Jonathan Bass in Blessed Are The Peacemakers has studied not just the Letter, but the surrounding events and personalities as well. He has rejected political correctness for historical accuracy. Bass has told it like it was -- to which students of history may enthusiastically respond: Viva la accuracy! Political correctness be dammed! In an era where the FDR Memorial is recreated to present something that was not--a public FDR in a wheel chair--how refreshing it is that a young history professor so cogently recognizes that history is just that: to be reported, and neither embellished nor otherwise distorted. Bass' book is carefully researched (including in-depth interviews with various of the Letter addressees). The book provides a lucid account for readers and future historians alike of a terrible time, yet a terribly important period of American history. In the process the author to his credit and to the credit of history does not, as some might fear, denigrate or tarnish the accomplishments of either Dr. King or the beauty of his Letter. Blessed Are The Peacemakers is must reading for anyone interested in a fuller understanding of the civil rights era. It is, among other things, forceful testimony why intuitive stereotyping often may lead to wrong conclusions. Last, but most assuredly not least: blessed is Jonathan Bass for undertaking and presenting to us Blessed Are The Peacemakers. Stephen W. Grafman

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