For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day… Here’s a series of three posts I wrote in the summer of 2014, inspired by Ed Gilbreath’s Birmingham Revolution, on King’s famous letter from a jail in that Alabama city.
Gilbreath (author of Reconciliation Blues and executive director of communications for my denomination) provides enough biographical and historical context that I began to realize just how little I know about this chapter in U.S. and church history. But this is not really a biography of King or a history of the civil right movement. Instead, over his 170 pages Gilbreath instead explores the origins, intentions, and implications of King’s “great epistle to the church,” the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
I’ve taught King’s “Letter” at least twice a year since coming to Bethel and wrote about it last April, on the 45th anniversary of the author’s death and just before the letter itself turned fifty. But I didn’t fully appreciate the unlikely origins of the document — smuggled out of a jail cell in pieces, with the initial sections scribbled in the margins of newspapers — until reading Birmingham Revolution.
Gilbreath notes that King’s arrest in Birmingham on Good Friday, 1963 — for joining a march in protest of the continuing segregation of the city’s downtown businesses — came at a pivotal moment in King’s career and the history of the larger movement. After an unsuccessful protest in Albany, Georgia the previous year (not everyone agrees with that assessment, by the way), many journalists and even some civil rights workers “pronounced nonviolent resistance ‘a dead issue.’” The movement “needed a victory,” recalled Birmingham pastor Fred Shuttlesworth, but King’s decision to march — in violation of a court order — was a risky one:
In the past King had avoided breaking actual court orders, focusing instead on the illegal restrictions put in place by local municipalities. But this time he felt he needed to make an exception or the campaign might wither. Memories of Albany filled his mind. But there was another problem. The SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] was running low on funds that could be used for bail money. The leaders were desperate for King to return to his national speaking schedule to help replenish the coffers….
King was caught at an impasse. If he didn’t return to the speaking circuit, he might endanger the future of the larger movement; however, if he left the city now, it would likely ensure another colossal failure. Furthermore, King’s associates knew that if he stayed, he planned to defy the court order and be arrested. That would deal an unquestionably devastating blow to the movement’s short-term survival. “If you go to jail, we are lost,” one aide argued. “The battle of Birmingham is lost. We need a lot of money. We need it now. You are the only one who has the contacts to get it.” (p. 69)
That aide wasn’t the only one to think that King and his colleague, Ralph Abernathy, shouldn’t have marched. King’s father worried for his son’s safety in Bull Connor’s jail. And the protest prompted criticism from those who supported desegregation but, encouraged by a recent mayoral election in Birmingham, preferred a more incremental, less confrontational strategy. That group included black moderates like businessman A.G. Gaston (whose hotel was the SCLC base in Birmingham) and editor Emory O. Jackson, but the most famous critics were the eight white clergymen (seven Christians and one rabbi) who published a joint “Call for Unity” the day after King’s arrest. It read in part:
In Birmingham, recent public events have given indication that we all have opportunity for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems.
However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of a people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.
It’s a tribute to Gilbreath’s gifts as a journalist (and historian — the book started life as the thesis for his master’s program in the philosophy of history) that he cultivates empathy for these eight well-meaning, often-forgotten Christian leaders (drawing heavily on the work of Jonathan Bass) without diminishing the power of King’s response.
King and the other SCLC leaders had often discussed writing a kind of “official letter, or epistle, for the civil rights movement”; the “Call to Unity” authors now became “the perfect foils for [King’s] message of Thoreauvian civil disobedience, Gandhian nonviolence and Christian reconciliation” (p. 99). Gilbreath offers an in-depth analysis of the content and style of King’s letter in ch. 9 (and reports on how it was received by the eight moderates, only one of whom, fellow Baptist George Stallings, is actually named by King — positively, for integrating his congregation). Here let me just quote one summary insight:
“Letter from [a] Birmingham Jail” marks a synthesis of concepts and philosophies King had been working out for years in speeches, articles and even in his seminary and postgraduate work. It represents, in the opinion of one historian [Jonathan Bass], “a culmination of all of King’s ideas, theology, experiences, and civil rights tactics.” His approach is at once redemptive and subversive. There is, in effect, a method to his meekness. Notes Thoreau scholar Wesley T. Mott, “King’s conciliatory tone—while apparently conceding ground in its humility—is intended to reveal the inhumanity of the clergymen’s position and to hold it up to the scorn of those of us who are reading over their shoulders. (p. 107)
As Gilbreath notes, “King likens himself to the apostle Paul” in writing this epistle; indeed, another of the eight moderate clergymen (Presbyterian pastor Edward Ramage) “compared reading the letter for the first time to receiving an epistle from the apostle Paul…” (an unnerving experience, surely).
But it’s not intended solely for those eight men — nor even for those sometime allies who had too often tried to restrain King’s message (“the national media, the Negro elite, Billy Graham and even the president of the United States”). It’s an epistle to Americans of all colors, and to the Church — in 1963 and beyond:
What becomes apparent to any serious reader of the letter is that this is not just “I Have a Dream” from an Alabama jail cell. Though King’s vision of racial integration and unity is clearly present, on this occasion the Baptist preacher is more concerned about issues of discipleship and righteousness. What does it mean to live out the Christian gospel in the context of a broken, unjust society? When does the silence of people of faith become as damaging as the shouts of haters? Speaking to the eight clergymen, King offered this stark caution: “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity… and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club.” It’s a warning that resonates just as much now as it did then, and Christians from a variety of backgrounds continue to see the letter’s urgency for the myriad challenges confronting the church in society. (p. 16)