InterVarsity Press

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Remembering Birmingham

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter to America--50 Years Later

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By Edward Gilbreath

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Remembering Birmingham

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From Chapter 1, "As Birmingham Goes":

It all happened fifty years ago in Birmingham, a place described by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as "the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States." A city where the libraries were not only segregated, but books containing photographs of black rabbits and white rabbits together in the same space were banned from their shelves. A city where, according to one famous report, "every medium of mutual interest, every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism." A city where bullets, bombs and burning crosses served as constant deterrents to blacks who aspired to anything greater than their assigned station of disparity. A city where vigilante mobs in white hoods collaborated with the police to reinforce the social status quo. There, in April 1963, King and his movement of nonviolent protesters staged a campaign that would transform America.

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a wiry and fiery Baptist preacher, had earned a reputation as the city's most fearless and outspoken fighter for human rights. It was Shuttlesworth who beseeched King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference deputies to descend on Birmingham and help the city's black community confront segregation "with our bodies and souls." He told them, "Birmingham is where it's at, gentlemen. I assure you, if you come to Birmingham, we will not only gain prestige but really shake the country." Shuttlesworth believed that "as Birmingham goes, so goes the nation." And Dr. King agreed.

On April 12, 1963, King was arrested for demonstrating on the streets of Birmingham. The next day, while locked up, he spotted this headline on page two of the Birmingham News: "WHITE CLERGYMEN URGE LOCAL NEGROES TO WITHDRAW FROM DEMONSTRATIONS." Below it was a joint op-ed from a group of prominent, socially moderate Birmingham ministers. The group—comprised of six Protestant ministers, a Catholic bishop and a Jewish rabbi—was supportive of civil rights for Negroes but critical of Dr. King's "extreme" protest methods which the clergymen felt would lead to civil unrest and unnecessary violence. In their public statement, they alluded to King as an "outsider" and criticized the movement for "unwise and untimely" demonstrations. "When rights are consistently denied," they wrote, "a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets."

And that prompted a letter of response from Dr. King.

In this short ebook, journalist Ed Gilbreath tells the story behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," a work that still calls us to accountability 50 years after it was first written. Gilbreath writes, "From time to time, prophetic Christian voices rise in timbre to challenge our nation's 'original sin.' Martin Luther King Jr.'s voice and historic efforts as the Moses of America's civil rights movement stand out as perhaps the most significant instance of a modern Christian leader acting in a prophetic role to instigate social change."

Discover for yourself the significance of King's masterful letter—for his day and for today—and watch for Ed Gilbreath's full-length book, Birmingham Revolution, in November 2013.

Related Information & Resources

Visit our dedicated page with Remembering Birmingham media resources, or download the PDF press kit (which includes an author interview).

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