New Book on King's Birmingham Jail Letter Examines Complexities of '60s Racial Scene
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" may be the most important written document of the civil rights era. Addressed to eight white Birmingham clergy who sought to avoid violence by discouraging King's demonstrations, the letter captured the essence of the civil rights struggle and provided a blistering indictment of the gradualist approach to racial justice.
King wrote the letter from a Birmingham jail cell in the spring of 1963, after being arrested on Good Friday for unlawfully demonstrating against the city's segregationist ordinances. The letter--with its image of King penning it in a prison cell--soon became part of American folklore. It presaged his dramatic 1963 March on Washington.
But the story of how clergymen from different religious communities responded to the racial crisis in the South and of how King and his associates carefully composed, edited and distributed the letter to help their cause is a more complex tale. Historian S. Jonathan Bass of Samford University deals with this story in his new book Blessed Are the Peacemakers, published by Louisiana State University Press.
The eight ministers were vilified by the national press as typical southern racists. But Dr. Bass goes beyond the headlines to examine the backgrounds, individual reactions to the letter and subsequent careers of the eight. He contends they shared King's goals of racial justice and black equality, but disagreed with him on how best to achieve these goals--a position in line with much of the mainstream of religious leadership at the time.
The letter was addressed to Methodist Bishops Nolan Harmon and Paul Hardin, Episcopal Bishops C.C.J. Carpenter and George Murray, Catholic Bishop Joseph Durick, Rabbi Milton Grafman, Presbyterian Minister Edward Ramage and Southern Baptist Minister Earl Stallings.
Bass's study reveals much about the role of the church and synagogue during the civil rights era. At the same time, King emerges as a pragmatist who skillfully used the mass media in his efforts to end racial injustice. The book demonstrates the complexity of southern race relations in the 1950s and '60s, showing how gradualists and moderates found themselves trapped between integrationists and segregationists.
Bass's book "reveals how southern moderates, even some who took courageous positions on behalf of human dignity and racial fairness, became targets from both directions," said Auburn University historian Wayne Flynt. "Blessed Are the Peacemakers is an ironic title for this book. The eight clergymen who dared criticize both George Wallace and Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birmingham demonstrations were hardly 'blessed' by their times or since."
Bass teaches recent American history at Samford. He holds the Ph. D. degree in history from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.