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Fifty Years Later: Letter From Birmingham Jail

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Fifty years ago this month, Martin Luther King Jr. drafted a letter from a cramped cell in Birmingham, Alabama. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Jonathan Rieder says in his new book Gospel of Freedom, reveals a more complex King, tough and tender, in equal measure. Rieder’s narrative reflects a major shift in the way many historians now understand the African American freedom struggle. The new scholarship challenges the division of black activism into integrationism and separatism, blurring the previously sharp lines between non-violence and violence, civil rights and black power. Rieder aims to replace the “sunny view of King” as a quixotic champion of the American dream and interracial brotherhood with a fiercer and more uncompromising King, a man who consistently preached a doctrine of black self-sufficiency. Martin, in other words, wasn’t that far from Malcolm. While Rieder succeeds in showing us a more multifaceted King, he neglects the long history of African American rhetorical dissent that shaped King’s message.

King went to Birmingham in early 1963 to help lead a campaign to integrate the water fountains, lunch counters, and restrooms of the downtown. Birmingham, or “Bombingham” as it was known to many of its black residents, was widely recognized as one of the South’s most segregated cities, a “notorious bastion of racist terror.” The pugnacious Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor oversaw the city with a police force packed with Klansmen and their sympathizers.

Attempting to reenergize a flagging boycott campaign, King successfully courted arrest on Good Friday by violating a court injunction against marches. Instead of placing King in a cell with his colleagues, Connor put him in solitary confinement, prompting King to remark, “He’s a smart old cracker.” Over the weekend, King’s attorney passed him a copy of the Birmingham News, which featured an open letter signed by eight of Alabama’s leading white clergymen under the heading, “A Call for Unity.” Branding King an outsider who favored “extreme measures,” the eight “moderate” clergymen derided the campaign as “unwise and untimely.” The letter jolted an otherwise despondent King, and he began to craft a response by writing in the margins of the paper itself. When the margins filled up, he wrote on the coarse prison-grade toilet paper.

King’s initial notes were ferried out of the jail by his lawyer and brought to King’s headquarters at a local motel, where a secretary struggled to make sense of King’s “chicken scratch scrawl.” That commenced several days of drafts shuttling back and forth surreptitiously between King’s cell and the makeshift motel office. Nobody had any inkling of the “Letter’s” future significance, and King’s original handwritten drafts were consigned to the dustbin.

Deeply informed by his knowledge of King’s speeches and other writings, Rieder’s meticulous reading of the “Letter” is invigorating.1 The title of Rieder’s book comes from a section of the “Letter” where King compares himself to the Apostle Paul, who carried the gospel of Christ to the world’s farthest corners. “So am I compelled,” King says, “to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.” Rieder transforms this “gospel of freedom” phrase into a powerful organizing idea, which runs through the whole book like a live current. Designed to appeal to both the free and unfree, as Rieder explains, the “gospel of freedom” combines argument and action. For whites, this meant it was not sufficient to recognize that blacks were God’s children, too, and thus deserving of freedom; they had an obligation to act on this knowledge. For blacks, this meant facing up to the fact that freedom is “never voluntarily given,” as King declares. “It must be demanded by the oppressed."

The “Letter,” Rieder says, reveals two crucial sides of King, “the diplomat” and “the prophet.” King opens the “Letter” by patiently responding to the charge that he was an outsider, building to the famous resolution that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (as Rieder notes, the diplomatic King emphasized that the civil rights struggle was a contest between justice and injustice, not between black and white). While the diplomat negotiates, the prophet admonishes. Playing the part of the prophet, King disparages organized religion as an “archdefender of the status quo.” Referring to the “South’s beautiful churches,” filled with congregants that have steadfastly ignored the evils of Jim CrowKing asks: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?” 

For Rieder, the crux of the “Letter” is a sprawling paragraph, a litany of black suffering, in which King responds to the mounting pleas for African Americans to be patient: A long list of “when you” phrases commences with, “when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will”; and concludes with, “when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” Here, and in describing the “ominous clouds of inferiority” beginning to form in his six-year old daughter’s mind, King transforms the hurt and pain of the race into his own pain. If whites could only “feel the stinging darts of segregation,” as King put it, perhaps they would be more alive to cries for justice.

Rieder proves so adept at mining the significance of King’s immediate circumstances that he loses sight of King’s place in the broader sweep of African American history. Dating to the early days of the republic, there has been a rich lineage of African American abolitionists, preachers, activists, and artists who strategically embraced the twin roles of diplomat and prophet. When Rieder mentions in passing that one of the two books King read in prison was W.E.B. Du Bois's 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk, he lets the key to this African American tradition slip through his grasp.

Posing the question, “How does it feel to be a problem?”, Du Bois set out to show “the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century.” “Leaving, then, the white world,” Du Bois wrote, “I have stepped within the Veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses,–the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow and the struggle of its greater souls.”2 Du Bois’s gentle introduction belies the sharply critical voice that follows in ensuing chapters, in which he recounts the nightmarish pain that segregation has inflicted on black folks.Would that a man could be “both a Negro and an American,” Du Bois said, “without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

Souls of Black Folk contains Du Bois’s most famous prophecy, that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” Infused with the spirit, ideas, and rhetorical strategies of Souls, the “Letter” represents King’s attempt to explain the meaning of the color line at the dawning of the civil rights era. Echoes—some booming, some faint—of many additional black texts can also be detected in the “Letter,” including those of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, Ida B. Wells's 1892 anti-lynching manifesto, Southern Horrors, and Frederick Douglass's 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” In Douglass’s scintillating address, for instance, after praising the great principles of the Declaration of Independence and the bravery and wisdom of the Founding Fathers, he delivered a relentless exposé of the nation’s hypocrisy. “The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me,” Douglass thundered, to the overwhelmingly white audience of anti-slavery advocates assembled before him. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”

So, although you wouldn’t know it from Rieder’s book, King’s “Letter” draws from a deep reservoir of African American protest rhetoric. King stands as one among many African Americans whose call for justice presented a blistering critique of our nation’s duplicity regarding our most cherished ideals of freedom and equality; and whose messages embraced the rhetorical rhythm of the turn-the-other-cheek of the New Testament before the fire-and-brimstone of the Old Testament. The modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s is but a single chapter, however pivotal, in the much larger story of the African American freedom struggle. In failing to trace or even acknowledge this history, Rieder reinforces a fairy-tale narrative of a larger-than-life King singlehandedly launching a movement.

The “Letter,” according to Rieder, brilliantly expressed the core ideas that animated a movement and played a key role in toppling Jim Crow. There is no denying that the “Letter” offers a powerful statement of the moral and philosophical foundations of the civil rights movement. But the press initially ignored the “Letter,” and Rieder himself concludes that it did not have any impact on the protests in Birmingham. While reprints of the “Letter” in magazines like the Atlantic and King’s 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait eventually reached a mostly white audience, it was the speeches King delivered in person in scores of black churches across the country that inspired African Americans.  

What happened on the streets of Birmingham had farther-reaching consequences than anything King wrote from behind bars. Two weeks after his release, hundreds of protesters heeded King’s call to march only to be met by a wall of police and firemen, armed with German shepherds and water cannons. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the photographs of snarling dogs and crumpled bodies knocked down by blasting fire hoses in changing the hearts and minds of the larger American public. No matter how lyrical and penetrating the “gospel of freedom” King articulated in the “Letter,” these almost instantly iconic photographs conveyed a much stronger, more visceral sense of racial oppression and injustice.

Intriguingly, King’s “Letter” may have had a more substantial impact on freedom struggles beyond the United States. In an all-too brief epilogue, Rieder sketches the “Letter’s” career in inspiring activists from the Czech Republic and Poland to South Africa and China. The prospect that the “Letter” significantly shaped courageous struggles against the Iron Curtain, apartheid, and authoritarian regimes is a tantalizing one—and it suggests that while the images from the King era have become neatly tucked away into the history books, King’s words continue to resonate, with the “Letter” broadcasting his fundamental belief that all oppressed peoples will eventually demand their “birthright of freedom.”

  1. Of particular interest are the ways in which Rieder clarifies the tone and resonances of specific passages in light of the recently released audio recordings of King’s contemporaneous speeches. The calls for black solidarity in the “Letter,” for instance, reflected in part King’s frustration with the lack of conviction among the ranks of Birmingham’s black bourgeoisie. A few days before King’s arrest, he addressed a well-heeled congregation, steeling them for a protracted fight and declaring that anybody who defied the boycott by shopping downtown would be labeled a “traitor to your race.”

  2. In Obama’s 2008 “Race Speech,” prompted by the furor surrounding the remarks of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the President reprised this tradition of lifting the Veil to explain what it means to be black in America, reminding his listeners that “the most segregated hour of American life occurs on Sunday morning.”