King, the Birmingham Jail and ‘Gospel of Freedom’

KING ANNIVERSARIES are popping up throughout this year, since 1963 was such a watershed in the civil rights movement. This spring, Read The Spirit reported on the 50th anniversary of King’s famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

Today, we are publishing a short review of Jonathan Rieder’s Gospel of Freedom, written for us by the Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer—a historian and author who wrote a series for us this spring on Abraham Lincoln.

We are reminding readers of King’s letter, this week, because of our coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the famous “Dream” speech. Research into King’s letter demonstrates the depth of the strategic planning that went into each of King’s most memorable utterances. In our spring story about the letter, we reported in part:

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s … letter should be remembered not as an impulsive note—but as a strategic step planned in advance like many of the great milestones in the civil rights movement. Today, King’s letter is dated to April 16, 1963, although the letter was completed over a longer period than that one day. The long manifesto was a rebuke of eight religious leaders who had just (on April 12) made a public appeal for an end to confrontational demonstrations. (Read that entire story, which also includes a link to the letter’s complete text.)

Jonathan Rieder’s
Gospel of Freedom

Review by the Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer

The Letter from Birmingham Jail written by Dr. King on secreted scraps of paper while he did Holy Week jail time before the coming March on Washington has become “sacred literature in the long war against Jim Crow,” so writes Jon Meacham reviewing Jonathan Rieder’s new book Gospel of Freedom.

Rieder, a sociologist at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York, has, by all accounts, vindicated the Black church’s language and faith as the core of King’s defense of the civil rights movement at a time when the white church and Kennedy’s White House wished King would just slow down or go away.

It is the language of King’s letter—angry and loving– that draws Dr. Rieder’s focus. His deep research reveals what King’s Black church words meant in their context and how they would convey meaning in his “cross-over” talk to reluctant white people. This makes his book both moving and persuasive.

As one reviewer noted, it is as if to Rieder the “Letter” were a poem and the sociologist the poetic explicator.

Dr. Rieder has won praise from such real time luminaries as Andrew Young and James Forbes, who at a presentation of the book to a large gathering of the black community in Harlem said Reider writes about King the preacher that he knew, plumbing the depths of the spirituality out of which King’s leadership came.

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