Fifty years ago Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama, scratching out a modern epistle in the margins of a newspaper. The Letter from a Birmingham Jail was a direct response to a letter published in the local newspaper written by a group of Birmingham clergy who were critical of the civil rights movement which had upset the balance in the “Magic City”. Rev. King’s response was nuanced and not without charity. It was also very direct.
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail is especially fascinating for its open criticism of those Christian leaders who considered themselves progressive yet who distanced themselves from the Civil Rights movement. Rev. King’s logic and critique reveal the strange and disappointing relationship between white Christians and their pastors and the experiences of their African American brothers and sisters in the Faith. As Edward Gilbreath shows in his new book, Birmingham Revolution, the relationship is no historical artifact. Rev. King’s critique retains its prophetic edge today.
Gilbreath acknowledges that Rev. King’s life, including this important episode in Birmingham, have been extensively documented, analyzed, and interpreted over the years. So why another book? Gilbreath’s unique and helpful contribution comes from his journalist’s eye, his commitment to Christian faith, and his long experience in white and black churches. From this vantage point he weaves a captivating narrative that pulls from history and contemporary events and shows the ongoing relevancy of Rev. King’s letter.
To show why the letter still matters Gilbreath ranges far and wide: NPR stories; many interviews, including with those who participated in the Civil Rights Movement; The Boondocks; his own personal experiences of race and injustice. He combines an unflinching eye with a light touch and the book moves quickly, subtly building the case that Rev. King’s observations and questions should be applied to the justice issues of our day. Throughout the book we meet lesser-known heroes of the movement- Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth is one the author is especially drawn to, and for good reason! We’re left wondering about who our contemporary foot soldiers are. Who are the women and men whose faith directs them toward such courageous compassion and critique?
Early in the book Gilbreath writes,
Just like Luther’s memo nailed to the Wittenberg Church door, King’s jailhouse epistle is a document teeming with deep and challenging ideas about theology, justice and freedom. If we allow it, we’ll find King’s freestyle meditation will take us on a sweeping journey form the Birmingham, Bible Belt, Deep South of 1963 to the postracial, post-Christian, Red State-Blue State cacophony of twentieth-first-century America and beyond.
Glibreath is just the right guide and Birmingham Revolution maps the journey with precision, imagination, and just the right amount of hope.
On Saturday February 22 Edward Gilbreath will be our church’s guest for a half-day conference that will be open to the public. We’d love to have you join us. I’ll share the details next month.