The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested in Birmingham, Ala., on Good Friday 50 years ago for parading without a permit. He had been intentionally risking arrest so that the nonviolent civil rights movement would receive more attention.
While in jail for eight days, he read a letter in the newspaper from eight local white clergy members that in essence said to give time for social change to move slowly and that the Rev. King’s actions were “unwise and untimely.” He responded with a letter written in jail that was soon printed as a pamphlet by the American Friends Service Committee. It appeared in a few smaller publications and then was published in the Christian Century and Atlantic magazines (it’s 16 pages long in this book). In 1964 the Rev. King included the letter in his book Why We Can’t Wait.
That letter became one of the key documents of the civil rights movement, and many of King’s quotations remembered today are from his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Mr. Rieder’s book is not the first to examine this issue, and other sources have detailed King’s reduced relevance as a leader at that time a few years after the Montgomery bus boycott, and how the letter sparked greater activism and personal recognition. The letter has been analyzed for language and impact; and narratives have given the historical and religious contexts. Even so, with this book coming a half century later, and with interviews and analyses from Mr. Rieder’s own research and the prior work of others, this work has strength and grounding.
Mr. Rieder shows that the Rev. King had been preaching about the same topics and often using the same words over the span of his participation in the effort to have civil rights recognized for blacks and others. The letter put those words in print. Mr. Rieder’s chapter titles show the different aspects of the Rev. King as a civil rights leader: prisoner, diplomat, prophet, and street fighter.
Gospel of Freedom has a place alongside other books focused on particular times and events in the movement to assure civil rights are not limited because of race.