Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nationby Jonathan Rieder
"I am in Birmingham because injustice is here," declared Martin Luther King, Jr. He had come to that city of racist terror convinced that massive protest could topple Jim Crow. But the insurgency faltered. To revive it, King made a sacrificial act on Good Friday, April 12, 1963: he was arrested. Alone in his cell, reading a newspaper, he found a statement from… See more details below
"I am in Birmingham because injustice is here," declared Martin Luther King, Jr. He had come to that city of racist terror convinced that massive protest could topple Jim Crow. But the insurgency faltered. To revive it, King made a sacrificial act on Good Friday, April 12, 1963: he was arrested. Alone in his cell, reading a newspaper, he found a statement from eight "moderate" clergymen who branded the protests extremist and "untimely."
King drafted a furious rebuttal that emerged as the "Letter from Birmingham Jail"-a work that would take its place among the masterpieces of American moral argument alongside those of Thoreau and Lincoln. His insistence on the urgency of "Freedom Now" would inspire not just the marchers of Birmingham and Selma, but peaceful insurgents from Tiananmen to Tahrir Squares.
Scholar Jonathan Rieder delves deeper than anyone before into the Letter-illuminating both its timeless message and its crucial position in the history of civil rights. Rieder has interviewed King's surviving colleagues, and located rare audiotapes of King speaking in the mass meetings of 1963. Gospel of Freedom gives us a startling perspective on the Letter and the man who wrote it: an angry prophet who chastised American whites, found solace in the faith and resilience of the slaves, and knew that moral appeal without struggle never brings justice.
“Rieder offers a sparkling reconsideration of the letter…. Rieder's trenchant comments approach the letter on historical and literary grounds but also as a way to better understand the often elusive King…. A slim volume that packs plenty of punch, Gospel of Freedom is a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the civil rights movement, King, and America itself.” June Sawyers, Booklist (starred review)
“Deeply informed by his knowledge of King's speeches and other writings, Rieder's meticulous reading of the 'Letter' is invigorating.” The New Republic
“A fresh perspective on Dr. King's message... What distinguishes this work is the author's close reading of King's letter and his explorations of its origins and aftermath... By analyzing the 'Letter' as both literature and moral imperative, Rieder adds to his subject's considerable legacy.” Kirkus Reviews
“Rieder's middle chapters include richly detailed interpretations revealing King's brilliance as an advocate for equality. He portrays King the diplomat as a patient teacher who later transformed into a raging Old Testament prophet who forcefully condemned racism. VERDICT This book's significance lies in its interpretation of the letter, which was itself published later in 1963, and its insights into the often inscrutable King.” Karl Helicher, Library Journal
“Mr. Rieder has brought together a great deal of research, studying archived recordings of King's talks and sermons as well as digging deep into the events of the campaign. Especially apt is the attention he has given to Birmingham's local civil-rights leaders--the great Fred Shuttlesworth, for instance, a man whom Klansmen repeatedly tried to assassinate and whom Bull Connor's fire hoses would gravely injure in May.” The Wall Street Journal
“Rieder assumes a familiarity with the text as he analyzes the letter and displays a remarkably deep knowledge of King's larger body of work, with cross-references and connections to other sermons and writings. Perhaps the most powerful and instructive of these comparisons is in relation to the ‘I Have a Dream' speech, given a few months after the letter was penned.” Publishers Weekly
“A brilliant new reading of ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.' Rieder rescues a document too often encased in abstraction, insisting we read it in its searing moment: amidst the violence, hope, and courage of the struggle for racial justice in which it was born. Gospel of Freedom is an indispensable guide to one of the most important documents of the twentieth century.” Daniel T. Rodgers, the Lea Professor of History, Princeton University, author of Age of Fracture
“‘Letter from Birmingham Jail' has been long overshadowed by Martin Luther King's ‘I Have a Dream' speech. Now Jonathan Rieder has written a vital book that gives the Birmingham letter its due as a piece of sacred literature in the long war against Jim Crow. A compelling book.” Jon Meacham, author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House and Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
“Beautifully written and deeply illuminating, Gospel of Freedom is the rare book that engages both the general reader and scholarly specialists. It's a lesson in using the art of close reading to reveal the complexity of historical context. Rieder allows us to see the world through the King's eyes, a feat worth celebrating.” Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor of History, African American Studies, and American Studies, Yale University
“With freedom songs and racist chants rising off the pages like steam from summer streets, Jonathan Rieder's stirring stage-setting for King's ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail' brims with passion, rage, and fragile hope.” Melissa Fay Greene, author of Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing
“For those of us who fought the fight for freedom in Birmingham , Jonathan Rieder's Gospel of Freedom brings alive the extraordinary events of 1963 with insight and eloquence. With the help of rare recordings, he powerfully evokes what it felt like and sounded like to hear Martin speaking--when despondent, indignant, or joyous. Above all, Rieder beautifully captures the spirit of fierce but loving defiance that was key not just to Martin's ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail' but all our efforts to transform America into a vital democracy.” Ambassador Andrew Young
“Eloquent and prophetic. Rieder does for our uniquely American saint's ‘Letter' what St. Augustine did for the Letters of St. Paul. Part commentary, part homily, part exhortation to the faithful, Gospel of Freedom reminds us of ‘the fierce urgency of now.'” Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies, Jewish Theological Seminary
“An extraordinary book. Rieder is the first scholar to illuminate the entire breadth and depth of this remarkable document, with uncommon skill and unblinking honesty. No serious student of the African American freedom struggle can afford to overlook this volume.” Raymond Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders
“Absolutely brilliant. . .Fantastic, an amazing book.” Henry Louis Gates on The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr
“Arguably the most creative book about King to date.” The Christian Century on The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr
“Eye opening. . .Rieder provides the best anatomy of King's verbal imagination yet.” The Nation on The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr
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Gospel of Freedom
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle that Changed a Nation
By JONATHAN RIEDER
BLOOMSBURY PRESSCopyright © 2013 Jonathan Rieder
All rights reserved.
THIS IS BLASPHEMY
The "Letter from Birmingham Jail" wasn't born in the isolation of a jail cell. All the key subplots of the "Letter" were hatched—most of the themes and even phrases had been anticipated and delivered—in the eighteen months preceding Martin Luther King's jailing: the rising defiance of black Americans; the battle between the "fierce immediacy of now" and the resistance of dilatory whites and reluctant Negroes; the clash between an engaged church and one cowering behind stained glass windows; the tension between disappointment and the faith that "the Lord will make a way out of no way"; the duty to respond to suffering humanity's cry for help and the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice that it oft en required in the Deep South. As King told an aroused mass meeting in Albany, Georgia, "They can put you in jail and transform you to glory; if they try to kill you, develop a willingness to die."
The Albany Movement had launched a full-fledged assault on segregation in that sleepy farm town in the fall of 1961. King came to Albany in response to a plea from the local movement's leader, Dr. William Anderson, his former More house College classmate, which basically boiled down to this: Somebody needs you, Lord, Come by here. As King pulled up in front of Albany's Shiloh Baptist Church (and Zion Baptist Church right across the street) on December 15, 1961, the signature sounds of the Albany Movement rang out through the night. Fifteen hundred people had been waiting for the grand leader, some for hours, their spirits lift ed by fervent prayer and the rapturous power of freedom songs like "I'm so glad / We're fighting to be free / Singing glory hallelujah! / I'm so glad."
King made his way up to the pulpit through faces transfixed, and a great shout went out: "one sustained cry of joy and welcome as, everyone on his feet, the people waved their arms to him, and he waved back." Then they turned back to song, improvising verses of "Amen," but replacing it with "Free-Dom": "Martin King says freedom / Martin King says freedom / Martin King says freedom," and then the chorus, "Free-dom! Free-dom!," until the song switched, seamlessly, into "I woke up this morning / With my mind / SET on freedom."
King's Albany venture came at a charged time for the grand leader and the civil rights movement at large. Six years had passed since the bus boycott he led in Montgomery, Alabama, had anointed him "the" black leader and catapulted him onto the cover of Time magazine. What did he have to show for it? He was still searching to define a mission for himself and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization he had helped create in 1957 to inaugurate campaigns of nonviolent direct action. Despite some success in voter registration and citizenship education, there had been few such campaigns, and doubts about King were growing.
They came from different quarters in the black community. Emory O. Jackson, the editor of Birmingham's black newspaper, wondered: "Is this merely visionary oratory unmatched by action? At the moment there is little more than the press releases from Dr. King's publicists." A younger activist thought that King "has been losing since he left Montgomery ... And I think eventually that more Negroes and more white Americans will become disillusioned with him, and find that he after all is only another preacher who can talk well."
The audacity had passed to a new generation that chafed at the elders' caution. The sit-in movement begun by black college students in 1960 proudly violated local segregation ordinances at lunch counters across the South, a far more daring exercise of civil disobedience than the bus boycott. Fearless Freedom Riders first sparked by the Congress of Racial Equality were challenging segregation in interstate travel, risking arrest and injury on buses and the terminals where racist thugs awaited them. Rejecting the oft en imperial style of leadership favored by the preachers, the brave insurgents in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were building grassroots movements across the Black Belt where they tried to vanquish centuries of fear and resignation and gladly embraced the identity of militants. It was three of those extraordinary SNCC workers—Cordell Reagon, Charles Jones, and Charles Sherrod—who had jump-started the Albany Movement in the first place.
This push created pushback from the white racists in the region. It also created tensions between King and the younger activists, as the future congressman John Lewis recounted. When Diane Nash, one of the stalwarts of nonviolent protest in Nashville, kept pressing King to join the Freedom Rides in 1961, he replied with visible irritation, "I should choose the time and place of my own Golgotha," invoking the hill on which Christ was crucified. That encounter with Nash was the first time Lewis heard King mocked as "De Lawd." Before the Albany campaign was played out, King became the target of criticism not just from whites who decried him as an "outside agitator" but from some local blacks who saw him as an interloper, the big man who dashed in, hogged the headlines, and bolted, leaving the locals to suffer the consequences.
But up in the pulpit at Shiloh, King still stirred the church with his gospel of freedom. He put their quest in the context of the African struggle for independence of recent years, and he insisted, "There must be repentance for the vitriolic, loud words of people of ill will, but also for the silence of good people." He warned them about the myth of time—that simply waiting around will somehow bring freedom—and consecrated their "determination to be free."
On all his subsequent visits to Albany, King never failed to affirm black people's responsibility for their own freedom. Pop u lar images of black and white children holding hands have long obscured the primacy of black autonomy in King's exhorting. Downplaying the role of the federal government or the governor of Georgia, he told the audience: "The salvation of the Negro in Albany, Georgia, is within the hands and the soul of the Negro himself."
This was the gist of the story King told of Gandhi's salt march, which he turned into a parable of black triumph against overwhelming odds, really a secular David and Goliath. "Just a few men started out, but when they got down to that sea more than a million people had joined in that march ... and Gandhi and those people reached down in the sea and got a little salt in their hands and broke the law, and the minute that happened it seemed I could hear those boys at Number Ten Downing Street in London, En gland, say: 'It's all over now.' " As pandemonium broke out in the church, King continued, "[A]nd if we will mobilize this soul force right here in Albany, Georgia, we will be able to transform this community ... And we'll be eatin' where we couldn't eat before. We will be marchin' where we couldn't march before ... And so let's get our marchin' shoes ready ... For we are goin' to Albany's March to the Sea."
As he reached for the fervent finale on his first night in Albany, King echoed the prophet Habukkuk ("O Lord, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear!"): "How long will we have to suffer injustices?" and an older man shouted back, "God Almighty ..." Then King asked, "How long will justice be crucified and truth buried?" and again, the man answered, "God Almighty." King was steeling them for what lay ahead—"Before the victory is won some must face physical death to free their children ... But we shall overcome." And the crowd ratified, "Shall overcome." Pat Watters, a white Southern reporter whose life was transformed by his experience in the mass meetings, described the scene from his perch in Shiloh. King's "voice, full of emotion that flowed into the crowd which poured it back to him, almost broke, shouting: 'Don't stop now. Keep moving. Walk together, children. Don't you get weary. There's a great camp meeting coming.'"
This flowing and pouring was central to King's oratory in the mass meetings. As Watters grasped, "The eloquence for which Dr. King was celebrated—his great addresses as at the Washington March in 1963, his writings, like the 'Letter from the Birmingham Jail'—was more or less studied, polished. The eloquence he found in the little churches of the movement was something else—a weaving of appropriate themes from past speeches, sudden bursts of innovative, emotional talk out of the immediacy of events and the meeting, wondrous structuring of metaphor."
King meant to give that speech at Shiloh and steal away. Instead, the passion of the Albany Movement swept him up and pulled him in. The next afternoon at the mass meeting, he rejected the charge "that some of us are agitators. I am here because there are twenty million Negroes in the United States and I love every one of them." He equally threw back the charge that he was "an outsider": "Anybody who lives in the United States is not an outsider in the United States. Injustice anywhere is a threat everywhere." King then led a pro cession of 250 freedom fighters down through the streets of Albany where they planned to pray for the imprisoned Freedom Riders and the Albany State students who had joined them in the white waiting room of the Trailways bus station. They snaked through the black section of town and entered the downtown where the sheriff , Laurie Pritchett, promptly arrested King. His brief stay in jail was just a prelude to two more trips to the Albany jail during the summer of 1962.
The Albany Movement was a singing movement. Bernice Johnson, who later founded the gospel group Sweet Honey in the Rock, was one of its teen stars. One of the favorite songs went: "Paul and Silas bound in jail, had no money to go their bail, keep your eyes on the prize, hold on." And then: "Paul and Silas began to shout / jail door opened and they walked out." This was the conjuring of black Christianity, exploding the line between this world and the next, Old Testament and New, refashioning the apostle Paul, and the prisoner Paul too, into something more like the delivered, an Exodus figure, Daniel in some lion's den.
King was arrested a second time in Albany, in July 1962, but his release was not as miraculous as Paul's. King was told that a mysterious stranger had bailed him out, much to his chagrin. In fact, it was Laurie Pritchett's doing, along with the mayor's. Sheriff Pritchett later recollected, "We knew we'd continue to have problems [if King stayed in jail], so I talked to some people. I said, 'We've got to get him out, and once we do, I think he'll leave here.' It sort of surprised Dr. King. This was the only time when it seemed he didn't know which way to go. King thought he was being transferred to another jail, but I said, 'No, you're leaving.' He said, 'I can't go, Chief Pritchett. I'll lose face if I go.' I said, 'Well you got to go, Dr. King.' Later on, we discussed this and he told me, 'This is the one time, not only did you outviolent me, but you outsmarted me.'"
At the end of July, when King landed back in jail for a third visit, he finally got the chance to serve at least a few weeks. On his last prison stay, the New York Times Magazine had broached with him the idea of a "Letter from Albany Jail," but his advisers nixed the idea. This time he did issue "A Message from Jail" to the readers of his regular column in the Amsterdam News, the black New York City newspaper. Instead of his intended tribute to Jackie Robinson, King gave the gist of one of his most important arguments in favor of civil disobedience. Critics who charged that civil disobedience "fosters disrespect for the law and encourages lawlessness" missed a key distinction, he wrote; the racists who broke the law practiced uncivil disobedience, flouting it with mean spirit and refusing to pay any penalty. By contrast, King's decision "to break that law and willingly pay the penalty evidences the highest respect for the law."
That analysis led to a blowup with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the younger brother of President John Kennedy. In between the July jail episodes, Robert Elliot, a federal judge appointed by the president, issued a temporary restraining order against King and the leaders of the Albany Movement barring mass demonstrations. The judge opined that such protests would deprive the whites of Albany of their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Before King arrived at his reluctant decision to obey the injunction, the incensed attorney general called him from Washington. "How could King even think of violating this court order, he demanded to know, when governors and school officials across the South were praying for an excuse not to obey federal school desegregation orders?" King, in turn, wondered, How was democracy even possible when a spate of court decisions stymied the movement at every turn? When the law was routinely hijacked by segregationists to squelch human rights? When blacks were denied basic rights of speech and assembly? "Always, King protested [to Kennedy], somebody would find a way to make protest unreasonable and segregation reasonable for the moment. 'We're tired, very tired ... I'm tired, we're sick of it.'"
Then he really let Kennedy have it. "Some of these problems you have created yourself by appointing these segregationist federal judges." Kennedy quickly gave the phone to Burke Marshall, his assistant attorney for civil rights, which ended what had become a "shouting match."
Andrew Young had never seen King more furious than in these exchanges with Kennedy and Marshall; King was deeply upset, and the arguments were "bitter." With its intimate admission of "I'm tired," the fracas reflected King's rising anger at moderates. The expression of that seething helps us appreciate the restraint King labored under in dealing with the Kennedys and the pain that was its constant accompaniment. More typically, King kept the disappointment to himself and his colleagues, but he oft en felt it. At one point during the Kennedy administration's maneuvering in its showdown with Governor Ross Barnett over James Meredith's desegregation of the University of Mississippi in 1962, King said "[it] made Negroes feel like pawns in a white man's political game." At other times, the ire took a passive aggressive twist. Irked by Kennedy's reluctance to declare a second Emancipation Proclamation, King simply made an excuse for not showing up at a White House function.
Despite his popular image as an idealistic liberal, John Kennedy was a cool pragmatist. Without embarrassment, he told King he had more urgent things to accomplish than sponsoring an expansive civil rights bill with little chance of getting through the legislative gauntlet of reactionary Republicans and Southern Democrats. His Justice Department kept invoking federalism as a rationale for inaction. When Kennedy wanted to put the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) attorney Thurgood Marshall on the U.S. Court of Appeals, he was stymied by Mississippi Senator James Eastland, the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But the senator wanted Kennedy to appoint to the federal bench the segregationist Harold Cox, who had been known to refer to blacks in his court as "baboons." Eastland told Robert Kennedy, "Tell your brother that if he will give me Cox I will give him the nigger." The deal was struck.
As for Robert Kennedy, the attorney general oft en saw King as an unrealistic irritant who destabilized the administration's interests in avoiding racial confrontation. In perfect harmony with Albany's segregationist establishment, the attorney general encouraged efforts to free King in July 1962 because his jailing was, in Taylor Branch's summary, "an embarrassment to everybody—to Albany, to the Kennedys, to Georgia, and to the entire United States in the court of world opinion. Therefore, it must be terminated by any means possible."
The frustration spilling out of King, then, wasn't just with the segregationist judges Kennedy appointed to mollify Southern Democrats. The judges simply confirmed King's own verdict: "Moderation" meant the triumph of cunning and compromise over justice. Here was the central lie of American exceptionalism. America was willing to flirt with that righteous language in inaugural speeches, as Kennedy did when he proclaimed that "We shall pay any price" and "bear any burden ... to assure the survival and the success of liberty." But that didn't apply to blacks. One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, eight years after Brown v. Board of Education, six years after the Montgomery bus boycott, America remained a tainted democracy, a democracy for white people.
During his third stint in the Albany jail, after he and his close friend, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, finished scrubbing the filthy floor and toilet, King worked on his forthcoming book, Strength to Love. That collection of sermons, aimed at the audience of white liberal Protestants, included another letter, "Paul's Letter to American Christians." The Paul of that epistle was not the prisoner or the delivered (of the freedom song), or the Samaritan who comes to the aid of the Macedonians, but the prophet conjured by King, another outside agitator who admonishes Americans as he spreads the gospel of freedom.
The sermon begins with King's announcing that he has just received a letter from the apostle, postmarked Ephesus. The contrivance allowed King to speak as Paul and thus to skim off some of his authority. Paul is a sharp observer of America's strange customs. "There is another thing that disturbs me to no end about the American church. You have a white church and you have a Negro church. You have allowed segregation to creep into the doors of the church. How can such a division exist in the true body of Christ?" That wasn't the only thing that Paul deemed "appalling." "I understand that there are Christians among you who try to justify segregation on the basis of the Bible. They argue that the Negro is inferior by nature because of Noah's curse upon the children of Ham. Oh my friends, this is blasphemy ... I must say to you ... that in Christ 'there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus' ... So, Americans, I must urge you to get rid of every aspect of segregation."
The two men didn't only share the same gospel of freedom. Paul also sounded a lot like King. "Yes, America, there is still the need for an Amos to cry out to the nation: 'Let judgment roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.'" If you just read the passage where Paul says, "Oh my friends, this is blasphemy," it's easy to breeze right past that "oh" as if it were trifling. But you have to imagine it as King so oft en spoke it, drawn out and tremulous, a quavering sigh, more like "Ohhh!," that signified the spirit was upon him.
Excerpted from Gospel of Freedom by JONATHAN RIEDER. Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Rieder. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jonathan Rieder is professor of sociology at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is the author of The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism. He has been a regular commentator on TV and radio, a contributor to the New York Times Book Review, and a contributing editor for the New Republic.
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