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This year, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of several key events from the civil rights era of 1963. The historical events include the March on Washington of August 28, 1963, with Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. They include as well the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" which Dr. King wrote in prison in April, 1963, in the middle of demonstrations against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Released in April, 2013 to coincide with the anniversary of the "Letter", Jonathan Rieder's book, "Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle that Changed a Nation", consists of a detailed analysis of the "Letter" and a discussion of its significance for King's work, including the Birmingham demonstrations and the later March. Rieder, professor of sociology at Barnard College, has written an earlier book on Dr. King, "The Word of the Lord is upon Me" (2008) together with an earlier book about the decline of political liberalism in the old Brooklyn neighborhood of Canarsie.
Rieder begins by placing the "Letter" in historical context. King had been asked to lead a boycott and demonstrations in Birmingham, which at the time was among the most violently racist cities in the United States. The boycott and supportive demonstrations had as their primary goal ending segregation in the stores. The demonstrations were delayed for negotiations which proved unsuccessful and then delayed further when the notorious "Bull" Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety ran unsuccessfully for mayor. When the demonstrations were slow in gaining momentum and Connor and the police acted with a degree of restraint, King got himself arrested on Good Friday, April 12, 1963. While he was in jail, a group of eight Birmingham clergymen wrote a public letter critical of King and the Birmingham demonstrations. The letter urged a policy of moderation and gradualism. King wrote his "Letter", dated April 16, 1963, in response to the clergymen. But King clearly had a broader audience in mind. King was released from jail on April 20.
With this background, Rieder presents an exposition of the "Letter". (The text of the "Letter" is included in the book.) Most readers have viewed the letter as primarily a discussion of civil disobedience in the line of Thoreau. Rieder argues that the "Letter" is substantially broader in scope and that it is pivotal in understanding King. Rieder finds the "Letter" falls into roughly two parts and develops two themes. In the first part, the "Letter" shows King as a "diplomat" as he explains politely and eruditely to eight clergymen and to white "moderate" America, the reasons for his activities in Birmingham and their pressing importance. In the second part of the "Letter", King becomes not only a preacher but he also adopts the tone of a "prophet" rather than a "diplomat". This section of the letter is passionate, and emphasizes the need for righteousness, justice, commitment to fight evil, and the deep injustices segregation visited on African Americans. Rieder argues that in the "Letter", King emphasized African American self-help and advocated a position closer to the views of black nationalists, such as Elijah Muhammad, than is sometimes realized. Thus, under Rieder's analysis, the "Letter" and King saw the struggle for civil rights as more outside American culture, rather than as an extension and fulfillment of the American experience. This reading emphasizes the militant character of Dr. King's vision and work.
The analysis of the "Letter" takes up the body of Rieder's book. He follows it with a discussion of how King used, and modified, the "Letter" in a speech to African Americans upon his release from jail. The modified speech emphasizes even more than the "Letter" the need for African Americans to be responsible for their own destinies by nonviolent resistance of injustice. Rieder discusses the subsequent escalation of the Birmingham demonstrations. While King was in jail, his associates had decided to use children in the demonstrations because the commitment of the adults seemed to be waning. With the use of the children, "Bull" Connor lost control and brought out dogs and hoses. The resulting images of violence shocked the nation and the world. King and the city reached an agreement under which the segregation in Birmingham stores ended. There was further violence in the form of rioting from some demonstrators followed by brutality from the Alabama State Police. On September 15, 1963, racists bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which had been home to much of the planning for the demonstrations. Four young African American girls were killed in the explosion.
In the final part of the book, Rieder argues that the themes of the "Letter", particularly its emphasis on African American self-help and its rejection of American exceptionalism, pervaded Dr. King's latter work, including the "I Have a Dream" speech. Rieder thus revises the frequently accepted interpretation of the "I Have a Dream" speech which sees King as placing his Dream within the American mainstream. Rieder also argues that the "Letter" includes themes that King developed in his later years, including his opposition to the War in Vietnam, and his increasing militance on matters of economics and poverty.
King's "Letter" has become a key document of the Civil Rights Movements as well as one of the most important works of 20th Century history. It is taught in countless high school and college courses in the United States and throughout the world. Rieder offers a thoughtful, provocative interpretation of King's "Letter", its history, and its continuing importance.