A tight, academic focus on the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” offers a fresh perspective on Dr. King’s message.
Few lives of the 20th century have been more richly, deeply and exhaustively explored than that of Martin Luther King Jr., and this study by Rieder (Sociology/Barnard Coll.; The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr., 2008) draws heavily from that biographical literature. What distinguishes this work is the author’s close reading of King’s letter and his explorations of its origins and aftermath. By the time of King’s jailing in Birmingham, it had been six years since he was featured on the cover of Time and generally proclaimed the leader of black America. The movement he led seemed to have stalled, and King felt besieged by criticism from both liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites, that he was too much of an extremist, too moderate, that his campaign of nonviolence was pushing too hard, too fast or was accomplishing too little. “Right up to the minute of his jailing, he felt disappointed and betrayed by blacks and whites alike,” writes Rieder. Everyone from the New York Times to the Kennedy administration to local Alabama clergy was telling him that now was not the time for massive protest. Responded King in the letter, “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ ” The letter provided the “moral and philosophical foundations” for the movement and, in some ways, contrasts sharply with the more often invoked “I Have a Dream” speech: “On the surface, the ‘Letter’ and the ‘Dream’ could not have differed more: the rebuke to white inertia on one side, the joyous refrain of brotherhood on the other.”
By analyzing the “Letter” as both literature and moral imperative, Rieder adds to his subject’s considerable legacy.