Spring 2001
Vol 18 No. 1

Making Samford a Better Place

An Exceptional Gift

Working for the Common Good

New Business Leadership

Opening the Free Market

Trucking with Computers

Other Stories
Bellas Created 'Climate of Achievement' in Samford School of Business

Community Banking Stresses New Technology, Personal Touch

Faculty Compendium

Early Greek Influence on Jordan Strikes Jan Term Class Members

A Cappella Choir Invited to Sing in Russia

Wind Ensemble Performs at MENC Conference

Samford Students Out-Perform Peers in 'Engagement' with Learning: NSSE

Student Accolades

Samford History Prof's Book on King Jail Letter Examines Complexities of '60s Racial Scene

Humphreys Writes on Baptists and Calvinism

Book Edited by George, Smith Examines Racial Reconciliation

George Authors Doctrine Study

Tillette's Team Makes It Interesting During Seventh Straight Winner

Pharmacies Could Hold a Key to Effective Disaster Response

Cochran and Moore Write the Samford Record Book

Baseball Alumni: Send Your Name

Kenny Morgan Scholarship Winners

 

 

Samford History Prof's Book on King 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 a part of American folklore. It presaged his dramatic 1963 summer 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, released this spring by Louisiana State University Press.

The eight ministers were vilified by the national press as typical Southern racists. But 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 religious leadership of 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' 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 '50s and '60s, showing how gradualists and moderates found themselves trapped between integrationists and segregationists.

Bass' 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 '61. "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."

As reviewer Heather Wecsler noted in the Monroe (La.) News-Star, "These men were hardly heroes, but they weren't exactly villains either. Instead, they were compellingly human. They dealt with the same moral battles we deal with daily."

Bass teaches recent American history at Samford. He holds the Ph.D. degree in history from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Other Comments on Blessed Are the Peacemakers

"Jonathan Bass offers new insights into the civil rights struggles of the 1960s by subtly illuminating the complex motives and differing perspectives of the eight 'moderate' Birmingham religious leaders condemned by Martin Luther King Jr. in his 'Letter from Birmingham Jail.' "
Dan T. Carter, author of The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics

"Teachers, students of the period and the general public will find this book to be a valuable tool for understanding the 'Letter (from Birmingham Jail),' its intended audience, and, more specifically, what effect it had on the lives of the eight clergymen who were its nominal addressees."
Lewis Sussman, Gainesville (Fla.) Sun

"As portrayed in the national media, the civil rights movement was a morality play with starkly drawn heroes and villains. This book, in contrast, is about the complexity of real life and the consequences that were paid by eight men who tried, in their way, to address injustice."
Elaine Witt, Birmingham Post-Herald