GOSPEL OF FREEDOM: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation. By Jonathan Rieder. Bloomsbury Press. 240 pages. $25.
In “Gospel of Freedom,” author Jonathan Rieder explores one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most compelling and nuanced arguments for civil disobedience as a just means in the struggle for black liberation.
Rieder’s investigation offers fresh and critical analysis of the “Letter” and its author as he examines the historical moments that led to King’s now infamous imprisonment in Birmingham on Good Friday 1963 and their impact on the iconic figure’s spiritual, mental and emotional temperature.
“Gospel of Freedom” is a historical and theological analysis of King, the man, the Christian and the charismatic leader. These three disparate parts of him come to bear on his writing of one of America’s literary, theological and philosophical treasures.
What we find is a King not only inspired by the theological philosophies of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, but one who drew strength from his unlikely ministerial compatriots: the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the outspoken minister and fiery grass-roots organizer, and the Rev. James Bevel, the eccentric Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader and outspoken provocateur.
These men were binary opposites of King’s well-heeled, black elite upbringing and middle-class sensibilities. Their alliance was one that drew inspiration from the youthful uprisers who would resuscitate the Birmingham movement; and one that shared a deep-seated mistrust of whites’ willingness and capacity to change. Ironically, it was this last sentiment that King shared in conversation with the black nationalist leader of the Nation of Islam, Minister Elijah Muhammad, an unlikely ally and confidant to be sure.
By including these interesting and contrasting images of King — the high-minded, charismatic preacher, the angry and impatient movement leader, the anxious and sometimes melancholy servant, and the faithful and courageous steward — Rieder delivers a King we all can relate to.
Here we meet a leader whose greatest strength and greatest frailty sprang from his magnanimous love for mankind.
After a failed movement in Albany, Ga., King journeys to Birmingham at the request of Shuttlesworth.
Yet when the Birmingham struggle loses momentum due to several postponements, a lack of support by local black clergy and secular leaders, and outright criticism by his ministerial peers, King, not surprisingly, fell into a depression.
When he, Ralph Abernathy and Shuttlesworth are arrested on Good Friday for violating the injunction barring them from protesting, King worries that the movement is in dire trouble. King’s emotional state is further strained by imprisonment in solitary confinement. Describing the tenor of King’s angst, Rieder writes:
“As King lay in the darkness of the Birmingham jail, he spiraled down once more into the midnight of his soul. ‘Those were the longest, most frustrating and bewildering hours I have lived,’ King later wrote. ... How many times had King reassured his people, ‘You go to jail and turn the dungeon of shame into a haven of freedom’? This time, the cell had become a dungeon of despondency.”
It was at this emotional impasse that King read “A Call for Unity,” an ecumenical appeal to blacks to refrain from further protest and essentially wait for equal rights to be handed to them.
The stalled movement, black apathy and white moderates’ ambivalence all influenced King’s mood during his three-week stay in the jail. But it was the betrayal by eight of Alabama’s leading white ministers that set King afire and inspired him to pen the “Letter” in response.
Rieder divides his investigation into four sections: “Prisoner,” “Diplomat,” “Prophet” and “Street Fighter,” each elucidating the mood, the meaning and the context of the letter.
His commentaries fluctuate from the colloquial to hermeneutic, underscoring the connection between King’s faith, his work in the civil rights movement and the contradictions he recognized as the shortcomings of his white ministerial counterparts.
“Gospel of Freedom” is an accessible analysis of the “Letter” and the movement that started and stalled before finally taking off and igniting the nation and the world. Rieder provides a comprehensive reflection on the people and events that made the Birmingham protests the watershed moment that King and the civil rights movement needed and had been waiting for.
Reviewer Patricia Williams Lessane is director of the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston.