Blessed are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the "Letter from Birmingham Jail"

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Louisiana State University Press, 2001 - Political Science - 322 pages
Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is arguably the most important written document of the civil rights protest era and a widely read modern literary classic. Personally addressed to eight white Birmingham clergy who sought to avoid violence by publicly discouraging King's civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, the nationally published "Letter" captured the essence of the struggle for racial equality and provided a blistering critique of the gradualist approach to racial justice. The "Letter" soon became part of American folklore, and the image of King penning his epistle from a prison cell remains among the most moving of the era. Yet as S. Jonathan Bass explains in the first comprehensive history of King's "Letter", this image and the piece's literary appeal conceal a much more complex tale.

Here is the story of how King and his associates carefully planned, composed, edited, and distributed the "Letter" as a public relations tool; of the media's enthusiastic response to it; and of this single document's immense impact on the civil rights movement, the eight white clergy, and the American public. As Bass goes beyond shallow headlines and popular myths to uncover the true story behind the letter, Martin Luther King Jr. emerges as a pragmatist who skillfully used the mass media in his efforts to end racial injustice.

In separate biographies of each of the eight ministers, Bass investigates the backgrounds, individual reactions to the "Letter", and subsequent careers of these men who were vilified as misguided opponents of King. Understanding their viewpoints and examining their lives reveal much about the role of the church and the synagogue during the civilrights era. Although they agreed on a few moral and ethical principles and signed joint public statements, the eight clergy had conflicting and often evolving ideas about civil rights and race relations, just like other southerners. Though chided in the "Letter", most of the eight ministers, Bass explains, shared King's goals of racial justice but disagreed with him on how best to achieve them -- a position in line with mainstream religious and political leaders of the time.

In demonstrating how the racial dilemma trapped self-styled gradualists and moderates between integrationists and segregationists, Blessed Are the Peacemakers clearly exposes the complexity of southern race relations in the turbulent decades of the 1950s and 1960s.

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About the author (2001)

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 into a middle-class black family in Atlanta, Georgia. He received a degree from Morehouse College. While there his early concerns for social justice for African Americans were deepened by reading Henry David Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience." He enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary and there became acquainted with the Social Gospel movement and the works of its chief spokesman, Walter Rauschenbusch. Mohandas Gandhi's practice of nonviolent resistance (ahimsaahimsa) later became a tactic for transforming love into social change. After seminary, he postponed his ministry vocation by first earning a doctorate at Boston University School of Theology. There he discovered the works of Reinhold Niebuhr and was especially struck by Niebuhr's insistence that the powerless must somehow gain power if they are to achieve what is theirs by right. In the Montgomery bus boycott, it was by economic clout that African Americans broke down the walls separating the races, for without African American riders, the city's transportation system nearly collapsed. The bus boycott took place in 1954, the year King and his bride, Coretta Scott, went to Montgomery, where he had been called to serve as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Following the boycott, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to coordinate civil rights organizations. Working through African American churches, activists led demonstrations all over the South and drew attention, through television and newspaper reports, to the fact that nonviolent demonstrations by blacks were being suppressed violently by white police and state troopers. The federal government was finally forced to intervene and pass legislation protecting the right of African Americans to vote and desegregating public accommodations. For his nonviolent activism, King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. While organizing a "poor people's campaign" to persuade Congress to take action against poverty, King accepted an invitation to visit Memphis, Tennessee, where sanitation workers were on strike. There, on April 4, 1968, he was gunned down while standing on the balcony of his hotel.

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