"I am in Birmingham because injustice is here," declared Martin Luther King, Jr. He had come to that city of racist terror convinced that massive protest could topple Jim Crow. But the insurgency faltered. To revive it, King made a sacrificial act on Good Friday, April 12, 1963: He was arrested. Alone in his cell, reading a newspaper, he found a statement from eight "moderate" clergymen who branded the protests extremist and "untimely". King drafted a furious rebuttal that emerged as the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" - a work that would take its place among the masterpieces of American moral argument alongside those of Thoreau and Lincoln. His insistence on the urgency of "Freedom Now" would inspire not just the marchers of Birmingham and Selma, but peaceful insurgents from Tiananmen to Tahrir Squares. Scholar Jonathan Rieder delves deeper than anyone before into the Letter - illuminating both its timeless message and its crucial position in the history of civil rights. Rieder has interviewed King's surviving colleagues, and located rare audiotapes of King speaking in the mass meetings of 1963. Gospel of Freedom gives us a startling perspective on the Letter and the man who wrote it: An angry prophet who chastised American whites, found solace in the faith and resilience of the slaves, and knew that moral appeal without struggle never brings justice.
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I was first introduced to the literary masterpiece of the “a Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in college which is strange to think I never read or even heard about it in high school. Maybe my being a poor student had something to do with it. Regardless, if you haven’t read it, you are missing out on an important piece of American history.
This book will not disappoint! From the beginning, the author breaks down the letter, line by line and communicates the thoughts, attitudes and predicaments of the black community as well as their advisories during this difficult time. He explains Dr. King’s intent and direction with every syllable and teaches the reader the crux behind each written word. Though one cannot imagine the struggles the black community endured, this book helps to give insight into a fraction of their struggle for equality as Americans. And Eugene H. Russell IV only adds to this excellent selection with an easy to listen to oration.
Five years before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 - 1968) published "Letter from Birmingham Jail." It was a response to "A Call to Unity," an April 12, 1963 letter written by eight Southern clergymen that, while nominally supporting the quest for racial equality, decried civil rights demonstrations lead by "outside agitators"and urged aggrieved Blacks ('Negroes' at the time) to use community level negotiations and the court system to achieve parity. In other words, wait. Just wait.
Sociologist Jonathan Rieder, PhD's "Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle that Changed a Nation" (2013) is a scholarly dissertation of the civil rights strategy the cultural conditions and forces that underly the Letter; King's family dynamics and how those shaped the letter; and the rhetorical syntax that made "Letter" so effective it resonates more than half a century.
For example, Rieder explores the strategy behind the actual arrest. Dr. King had to go to Birmingham and be arrested, since King knew Birmingham would incarcerate him for a long period of time. In contrast, the cannier sheriff in Albany, Georgia, after he'd arrested King a second or third time, actually arranged to have someone post King's bond so he had to be released. The sheriff wasn't acting out of sympathy for the civil rights movement or for King. He didn't want Albany to be a touchstone of the civil rights movement that Birmingham became.
Rieder's analysis of the text itself is exhaustive and sometimes exhausting. He argues convincingly that the first part of "Letter" is essentially a sermon Dr. King had been honing and delivering for several years. Dr. King walked into jail with the arguments that are in "Letter" already developed, and just needed to tailor them to "A Call to Unity."
Rieder's discussion of the cadence and King's choice of words is interesting, but even as beautifully constructed and historically and biblical nuanced as "Letter" is, King couldn't have had time to detailed thought into every word. Dr. King wrote it in the margins of newspapers; on toilet paper so rough it held up to the assault of a pencil or pen; on smuggled notebook paper; and finally, on a legal pad his attorneys were able to bring him. It was transcribed, edited and published just two months later. The scholarly analysis intrigues, but King's lifetime religious training (he was a fourth generation minister); his education (King had two Bachelor's degrees and a PhD); and his unparalleled oratorical prowess and astounding reasoning must have meant he was able to write "Letter" without agonizing over every single word. That's not to say Rieder's analysis isn't apt, but I think he understates how much the impact of the writing depends on the perception of the reader.
Rieder's directed this book at readers who already have a fairly in-depth understanding of King and the civil rights movement. The appendix (the last Audible chapter) has the full text of "Letter." Unless you already know it very well, listen to it first, or read it on line - then listen to "Gospel of Freedom."
The narration is scholarly and a little dry. Well, actually, sleepy dry. I wasn't expecting King by any means, and trying to approximate how King would have delivered "Letter from Birmingham Jail" if he'd given it as a speech? Well, King didn't deliver it as a speech so it wouldn't have been accurate. But livelier would have helped.
I'm giving the book 3's because it wandered, but that's not an opinion about "Letter From Birmingham Jail." That elegant, profound piece of writing made the world better.
The title of the review is from the text of "Letter."
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