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Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation

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"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 "moder "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 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 "moder "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.

30 review for Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation

  1. 5 out of 5

    Scott

    " . . . King's message was that God wanted you to 'deliver yourself.' His gospel of freedom mixed responsibility, spiritual recovery, and racial solidarity in a heady brew." -- the author, on page 31 Gospel of Freedom too often lags into feeling like a college textbook or a reading assignment, taking an absorbing or vital American topic, which had a charismatic and talented writer & orator in King at its forefront, and then rendering it in a dry format. (Note: author Rieder is a university profes " . . . King's message was that God wanted you to 'deliver yourself.' His gospel of freedom mixed responsibility, spiritual recovery, and racial solidarity in a heady brew." -- the author, on page 31 Gospel of Freedom too often lags into feeling like a college textbook or a reading assignment, taking an absorbing or vital American topic, which had a charismatic and talented writer & orator in King at its forefront, and then rendering it in a dry format. (Note: author Rieder is a university professor.) However, it was in the little details that I found some of the most interesting parts - King possibly sliding into or suffering from undiagnosed depression after spending time in the solitary wing of the jail in April 1963; his sometimes strained relationships with other local clergy and civil rights leaders; the reactions and involvement of Jack and Bobby Kennedy - that helped bring history to life. Also of note is that the entire text of the 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' is included at the book's conclusion.

  2. 5 out of 5

    robin friedman

    Martin Luther King's Letter From Birmingham Jail This year, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of several key events from the civil rights era of 1963. The historical events include the March on Washington of August 28, 1963, with Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. They include as well the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" which Dr. King wrote in prison in April, 1963, in the middle of demonstrations against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Released in April, 2013 to coincide with the ann Martin Luther King's Letter From Birmingham Jail This year, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of several key events from the civil rights era of 1963. The historical events include the March on Washington of August 28, 1963, with Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. They include as well the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" which Dr. King wrote in prison in April, 1963, in the middle of demonstrations against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Released in April, 2013 to coincide with the anniversary of the "Letter", Jonathan Rieder's book, "Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle that Changed a Nation", consists of a detailed analysis of the "Letter" and a discussion of its significance for King's work, including the Birmingham demonstrations and the later March. Rieder, professor of sociology at Barnard College, has written an earlier book on Dr. King, "The Word of the Lord is upon Me" (2008) together with an earlier book about the decline of political liberalism in the old Brooklyn neighborhood of Canarsie. Rieder begins by placing the "Letter" in historical context. King had been asked to lead a series of demonstrations in Birmingham, which at the time was among the most violently racist cities in the United States. The demonstrations had as their primary goal ending segregation in the stores. The demonstrations were delayed for negotiations which proved unsuccessful and then delayed further when the notorious "Bull" Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety ran unsuccessfully for mayor. When the demonstrations were slow in gaining momentum and Connor and the police acted with a degree of restraint, King got himself arrested on Good Friday, April 12, 1963. While he was in jail, a group of eight Birmingham clergymen wrote a public letter critical of King and the Birmingham demonstrations. The letter urged a policy of moderation and gradualism. King wrote his "Letter", dated April 16, 1963, in response to the clergymen. But King clearly had a broader audience in mind. King was released from jail on April 20. With this background, Rieder presents an exposition of the "Letter". (The text of the "Letter" is included in the book.) Most readers have viewed the letter as primarily a discussion of civil disobedience in the line of Thoreau. Rieder argues that the "Letter" is substantially broader in scope and that it is pivotal in understanding King. Rieder finds the "Letter" falls into roughly two parts and develops two themes. In the first part, the "Letter" shows King as a "diplomat" as he explains politely and eruditely to eight clergymen and to white "moderate" America, the reasons for his activities in Birmingham and their pressing importance. In the second part of the "Letter", King becomes not only a preacher but he also adopts the tone of a "prophet" rather than a "diplomat". This section of the letter is passionate, and emphasizes the need for righteousness, justice, commitment to fight evil, and the deep injustices segregation visited on African Americans. Rieder argues that in the "Letter", King emphasized African American self-help and advocated a position closer to the views of black nationalists, such as Elijah Muhammad, than is sometimes realized. Thus, under Rieder's analysis, the "Letter" and King saw the struggle for civil rights as more outside American culture, rather than as an extension and fulfillment of the American experience. This reading emphasizes the militant character of Dr. King's vision and work. The analysis of the "Letter" takes up the body of Rieder's book. He follows it with a discussion of how King used, and modified, the "Letter" in a speech to African Americans upon his release from jail. The modified speech emphasizes even more than the "Letter" the need for African Americans to be responsible for their own destinies by nonviolent resistance of injustice. Rieder discusses the subsequent escalation of the Birmingham demonstrations. While King was in jail, his associates had decided to use children in the demonstrations because the commitment of the adults seemed to be waning. With the use of the children, "Bull" Connor lost control and brought out dogs and hoses. The resulting images of violence shocked the nation and the world. King and the city reached an agreement under which the segregation in Birmingham stores ended. There was further violence in the form of rioting from some demonstrators followed by brutality from the Alabama State Police. On September 15, 1963, racists bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which had been home to much of the planning for the demonstrations. Four young African American girls were killed in the explosion. In the final part of the book, Rieder argues that the themes of the "Letter", particularly its emphasis on African American self-help and its rejection of American exceptionalism, pervaded Dr. King's latter work, including the "I Have a Dream" speech. Rieder thus revises the frequently accepted interpretation of the "I Have a Dream" speech which sees King as placing his Dream within the American mainstream. Rieder also argues that the "Letter" includes themes that King developed in his later years, including his opposition to the War in Vietnam, and his increasing militance on matters of economics and poverty. King's "Letter" has become a key document of the Civil Rights Movements as well as one of the most important works of 20th Century history. It is taught in countless high school and college courses. Rieder offers a thoughtful, provocative interpretation of King's "Letter", its history, and its continuing importance. Robin Friedman

  3. 5 out of 5

    Clif Hostetler

    This book reviews the historical events leading up to the writing of the Letter from Birmingham Jail, describes the context of events within which it was written, parses its text with careful comparison to King’s sermons and speeches, and then reports on the aftermath and responses to the letter. I think the author has done a fine job of illuminating the text and explaining its significance as part of the civil rights movement. The full text of the letter is included in the appendix of the book. This book reviews the historical events leading up to the writing of the Letter from Birmingham Jail, describes the context of events within which it was written, parses its text with careful comparison to King’s sermons and speeches, and then reports on the aftermath and responses to the letter. I think the author has done a fine job of illuminating the text and explaining its significance as part of the civil rights movement. The full text of the letter is included in the appendix of the book. All through the book I was wondering what the reaction was in later years of the eight white pastors to which the Letter was addressed. The Letter was not mailed to them directly, but as the Letter became widely published they all found out about it. The epilog of this book addresses this question and describes the reactions of some of the pastors. The reactions varied from defiant and resentful to apologetic. When they signed their names to the newspaper article they had no idea that their names would forever be associated with a famous work of literature written in reply. The following quote from one of the the pastors gives a taste of what they have experienced."Now this letter is studied in English courses and sociology courses, and I get at least one letter a semester asking me if I'm still a bigot."I learned about this book from the following short description found on my Book Lover’s Calendar for January 19, 2015 (Martin Luther King Day).Martin Luther King Jr. came to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, convinced that massive protests could topple Jim Crow. But the movement failed, and to revive it, King allowed himself to be arrested. While he was in his cell, he read a newspaper article written by eight clergymen who objected to the protests. King drafted an indignant rebuttal that became the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which would take its place among works by Thoreau and Lincoln as a signpost of moral argument. Scholar Jonathan Rieder provides a fresh and startling perspective on both the letter and the man who wrote it. GOSPEL OF FREEDOM: MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.'S LETTER FROM BIRMINGHAM JAIL AND THE STRUGGLE THAT CHANGED A NATION, by Jonathan Rieder (Bloomsbury, 2013)Many of the quotations attributed to MLK can be found in the Letter. The following are examples:“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” “So I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. ” “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Actually a quote from the Old Testament, Amos 5:24)

  4. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

    I'm ashamed that I had not yet read Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and also, how much of what I know about the Civil Rights Movement is a series of generalities and "popular history". I'm going to aim to learn more about the history of minorities in the United States. I need a more historically accurate framework in which to place my perspectives on privilege. If anyone has recommendations on that front, I would much appreciate it. As a sidenote, it was refreshing to rea I'm ashamed that I had not yet read Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and also, how much of what I know about the Civil Rights Movement is a series of generalities and "popular history". I'm going to aim to learn more about the history of minorities in the United States. I need a more historically accurate framework in which to place my perspectives on privilege. If anyone has recommendations on that front, I would much appreciate it. As a sidenote, it was refreshing to read analysis again. I'm sure college students must be sick to death of it, but I am woefully underexposed these days. Another literary gap to fill in, I suppose. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." - Martin Luther King, Jr. in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail".

  5. 4 out of 5

    Alan Marr

    I am a sucker for anything about Martin Luther King but I reckon if the New Testament were being compiled today his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” would be included. This book tells the story of the drama that birthed it and what happened after it. It deals with the troubled courageous soul of MLK as well as those around him. I was left wondering about the 8 clergy to whom the letter was addressed. The book gives a little information about them but I would like to know more. I feel the same a I am a sucker for anything about Martin Luther King but I reckon if the New Testament were being compiled today his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” would be included. This book tells the story of the drama that birthed it and what happened after it. It deals with the troubled courageous soul of MLK as well as those around him. I was left wondering about the 8 clergy to whom the letter was addressed. The book gives a little information about them but I would like to know more. I feel the same about Bull Connor. Did he die a happy man? This book is a well-written exegesis of the letter. I found it deeply moving.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Debbie Jacob

    Letter from Birmingham Jail is such an important Civil Rights proclamation, which is not nearly talked about as much as King's speeches. Rieder's book provides a social and historical context for the letter, which is included in the book making this an important history of the Civil Right's movement. Letter from Birmingham Jail is such an important Civil Rights proclamation, which is not nearly talked about as much as King's speeches. Rieder's book provides a social and historical context for the letter, which is included in the book making this an important history of the Civil Right's movement.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Rob

    Solid study of the Birmingham letter and its historical context. Balanced approach, not heavy on the hero worship. Structured very well so that when you go through the letter itself, you understand the references to contemporaneous events. Very much worth a read.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Barbara Mayer

    Words for everyone and every day. I think we need to be reminded of Dr Kings message more today than ever. I am so grateful his words are available to read today and tomorrow,again and again.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    It would have been amazing to have really known MLKJ. The more I learn about him, the more I think that to be true!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jen

    My favorite part of the book was reading King's letter from Birmingham. The rest of the analysis and history was interesting, but I would probably just suggest reading one of King's books instead. My favorite part of the book was reading King's letter from Birmingham. The rest of the analysis and history was interesting, but I would probably just suggest reading one of King's books instead.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Knapp

    Book Riot Read Harder Challenge Task #20: A book written in prison. So this was an interesting challenge for as far as I could tell, it needed to actually be written in prison and not written by someone who had been incarcerated and then released, and later wrote the book. As a result, much of this book was an analysis of the letter itself (since that is what was written in prison) with only some of it talking about the lead up to the incarceration (how Martin Luther King Jr came to be in a Birmi Book Riot Read Harder Challenge Task #20: A book written in prison. So this was an interesting challenge for as far as I could tell, it needed to actually be written in prison and not written by someone who had been incarcerated and then released, and later wrote the book. As a result, much of this book was an analysis of the letter itself (since that is what was written in prison) with only some of it talking about the lead up to the incarceration (how Martin Luther King Jr came to be in a Birmingham Jail and what was going on at the time in terms of segregation and politics). And though the book isn't long, I will honestly admit I did find it a bit challenging to stay focused on the narrative (don't worry I was reflecting on what was being discussed!) as it isn't so much a book with a story to tell, more a book that analysis a critical letter at a pivotal point of time. There are times where you loop back over key points in the letter in order to better understand his message and its meaning. And what a letter! It is so beautifully articulated despite the horrendous treatment he must have been suffering; extreme isolation, starvation and abuse. There were times when you were reading it, where you can't believe anyone endured such violations of basic human rights, while at the same time, thinking some of this is still happening today. I would very much like to read more on the life of Martin Luther King Jr and the other men and women who suffered to bring an end to segregation.

  12. 5 out of 5

    David Campton

    Until last year I had never actually read, in its entirety, MLK's letter from Birmingham jail, which is the focus of this book, and is included in full in the appendix. As such I read the back of the book first, and in my first reading I constantly flicked back and forward from commentary to text. I re-read the whole book again this year at a faster pace, in the wake of the 50th anniversary of MLK's assassination, the post Obama Trump era race politics in the US and the 50th anniversary of the C Until last year I had never actually read, in its entirety, MLK's letter from Birmingham jail, which is the focus of this book, and is included in full in the appendix. As such I read the back of the book first, and in my first reading I constantly flicked back and forward from commentary to text. I re-read the whole book again this year at a faster pace, in the wake of the 50th anniversary of MLK's assassination, the post Obama Trump era race politics in the US and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights marches here in NI that claimed their inspiration from MLK etc, and yet ironically lead to a prolonged period in this province that was anything but non-violent. As such it made me long for leaders of MLK's stature in America and here in the present day... and believe that this book should be compulsory reading for anyone going into public office or engaging in the public square in the arena of rights and social justice. The author clearly identifies the complex strands of reason, rhetoric and raw emotion in this letter, and makes me want to read more in a similar vein.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Francis Martinez

    I had some time ago heard of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter From a Birmingham Jail but I had never read it. Jonathan Rieder's book dissects the letter and analyzes its passages against the background of the times and circumstances. It was an eye opening book for me and I believe gives insight into issues that are relevant to today. I would recommend this book to anyone seeking to gain further insight into the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties and how King's letter is relevant tod I had some time ago heard of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter From a Birmingham Jail but I had never read it. Jonathan Rieder's book dissects the letter and analyzes its passages against the background of the times and circumstances. It was an eye opening book for me and I believe gives insight into issues that are relevant to today. I would recommend this book to anyone seeking to gain further insight into the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties and how King's letter is relevant today.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Eddie

    It is really a 3.5 stars for me. I wanted to like this book more given the subject matter but, I guess the writer and I were not on the same page. Another reviewer (also 3 stars) posted a short hand read of the book as follows: -Chapter 1 -Appendix (the "Letter" itself) -Chapter 4 -Epilogue I wholeheartedly agree. It is really a 3.5 stars for me. I wanted to like this book more given the subject matter but, I guess the writer and I were not on the same page. Another reviewer (also 3 stars) posted a short hand read of the book as follows: -Chapter 1 -Appendix (the "Letter" itself) -Chapter 4 -Epilogue I wholeheartedly agree.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jana Kaplan

    How do you explain the unimaginable and real circumstances of this book? A freedom fighter is thrown in jail while walking for his cause. His comrades in arms critique him. He now has all the time in the world and gives the world a letter that should be required reading in every history class curriculum. Beautifully written.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Bethany Ward

    I agree with other readers that it’s helpful to go to the epilogue after chapter 1 to actually read ‘the Letter’ before diving into the analysis in chapter 2. Lots of great history and explanation of context for this breathtaking letter. I’m only sad it took me so long to discover King’s words. They are more relevant and needed today than ever before. I needed this gut check. Thank you, Dr King.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Cathy

    Both insightful analysis of Dr. King’s brilliant “Letter” and interesting historical background culled from tapes of mass meetings held during the Birmingham Campaign, author interviews with key figures, and a host of textual research. I learned a lot and was moved.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Green

    This is a fantastic peek into the current climate that lead up to King's famous letter from jail. Although the letters weren't an instant hit, this book goes deeply into why the letter was necessary, and how it slowly grabbed the attention of millions. This is a fantastic peek into the current climate that lead up to King's famous letter from jail. Although the letters weren't an instant hit, this book goes deeply into why the letter was necessary, and how it slowly grabbed the attention of millions.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Holly

    A more critical analysis of MLK Jr‘s role in the civil rights movement. I should have skipped to the book’s Appendix where you can find a copy of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which I found to be wonderfully written and a more succinct synopsis of everything in this book.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    Essential for anyone who teaches "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Essential for anyone who teaches "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

  21. 5 out of 5

    Su

    Dr. King's letter is just as relevant now as it was when he wrote it. This book offers valuable context for those of us who weren't there, as well as the full text of the letter. Dr. King's letter is just as relevant now as it was when he wrote it. This book offers valuable context for those of us who weren't there, as well as the full text of the letter.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Carol

    Interesting look at the courage, determination, and faith of MLK ! First time I've read his letter. Interesting look at the courage, determination, and faith of MLK ! First time I've read his letter.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Aqueelah

    Helpful insight to Dr. King's personal sacrifice and reminder of our current institutional pitfalls and challenges. Helpful insight to Dr. King's personal sacrifice and reminder of our current institutional pitfalls and challenges.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Melody

    It did provide extra on the background dynamics of the civil rights movement.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie

    This should be a must read for EVERYONE!

  26. 4 out of 5

    TOMMY GLOVER

    An introduction to the civil rights era in America. Start here with one of the most important events of that time.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kristine

    Absolutely brilliant and timely. The perfect companion to Wilkerson’s Caste.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Barbara

    Read for school assignment

  29. 4 out of 5

    Karen Ackley

    I'm embarrassed to say that I had never heard of MLK's letter from the Birmingham Jail and most of what I know about King is based on a few iconic moments captured on film. This book humanized him, gave insight to his personality, his drive, and his dedication to the civil rights cause. The letter also serves to demonstrate his mastery of not only the spoken word, but also the written. It is powerful, masterful, and brilliant. The book itself is well written but not an easy read. The author's pro I'm embarrassed to say that I had never heard of MLK's letter from the Birmingham Jail and most of what I know about King is based on a few iconic moments captured on film. This book humanized him, gave insight to his personality, his drive, and his dedication to the civil rights cause. The letter also serves to demonstrate his mastery of not only the spoken word, but also the written. It is powerful, masterful, and brilliant. The book itself is well written but not an easy read. The author's professorial credentials are obvious on each page as it reads more like a text book that an historical piece. About mid-way through the book, I turned to the actual letter which is printed in its entirety as an Appendix. Once read, the rest of the book was easier for me to digest. I would have preferred the letter be positioned at the beginning of the book.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Virginia

    My book

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