History Prof's Book on King Jail Letter Examines Complexities of
'60s Racial Scene
King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" may be the most
important written document of the Civil Rights era. Addressed to
eight white Birmingham clergy who sought to avoid violence by discouraging
King's demonstrations, the letter captured the essence of the civil
rights struggle and provided a blistering indictment of the gradualist
approach to racial justice.
wrote the letter from a Birmingham jail cell in the spring
of 1963, after being arrested on Good Friday for unlawfully
demonstrating against the city's segregationist ordinances.
The letter-with its image of King penning it in a prison cell-soon
became a part of American folklore. It presaged his dramatic
1963 summer March on Washington.
story of how clergymen from different religious communities
responded to the racial crisis in the South and of how King
and his associates carefully composed, edited and distributed
the letter to help their cause is a more complex tale. Historian
S. Jonathan Bass of Samford University deals with this story
in his new book, Blessed Are the Peacemakers, released this
spring by Louisiana State University Press.
eight ministers were vilified by the national press as typical
Southern racists. But Bass goes beyond the headlines to examine
the backgrounds, individual reactions to the letter and subsequent
careers of the eight. He contends they shared King's goals
of racial justice and black equality, but disagreed with him
on how best to achieve these goals-a position in line with
much of the mainstream religious leadership of the time.
was addressed to Methodist bishops Nolan Harmon and Paul Hardin,
Episcopal bishops C.C.J. Carpenter and George Murray, Catholic bishop
Joseph Durick, Rabbi Milton Grafman, Presbyterian minister Edward
Ramage and Southern Baptist minister Earl Stallings.
study reveals much about the role of the church and synagogue
during the Civil Rights era. At the same time, King emerges
as a pragmatist who skillfully used the mass media in his
efforts to end racial injustice. The book demonstrates the
complexity of Southern race relations in the '50s and '60s,
showing how gradualists and moderates found themselves trapped
between integrationists and segregationists.
book "reveals how Southern moderates, even some who took
courageous positions on behalf of human dignity and racial
fairness, became targets from both directions," said
Auburn University historian Wayne Flynt '61. "Blessed
Are the Peacemakers is an ironic title for this book. The
eight clergymen who dared criticize both George Wallace and
Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birmingham demonstrations were hardly
'blessed' by their times or since."
Heather Wecsler noted in the Monroe (La.) News-Star, "These
men were hardly heroes, but they weren't exactly villains either.
Instead, they were compellingly human. They dealt with the same
moral battles we deal with daily."
recent American history at Samford. He holds the Ph.D. degree in
history from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
Comments on Blessed Are the Peacemakers
Bass offers new insights into the civil rights struggles of the
1960s by subtly illuminating the complex motives and differing perspectives
of the eight 'moderate' Birmingham religious leaders condemned by
Martin Luther King Jr. in his 'Letter from Birmingham Jail.' "
Dan T. Carter, author of The Politics of Rage: George Wallace,
the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American
students of the period and the general public will find this book
to be a valuable tool for understanding the 'Letter (from Birmingham
Jail),' its intended audience, and, more specifically, what effect
it had on the lives of the eight clergymen who were its nominal
Lewis Sussman, Gainesville (Fla.) Sun
in the national media, the civil rights movement was a morality
play with starkly drawn heroes and villains. This book, in contrast,
is about the complexity of real life and the consequences that were
paid by eight men who tried, in their way, to address injustice."
Elaine Witt, Birmingham Post-Herald