Fifty-five years ago, on April 16,1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. began writing his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” directed at eight Alabama clergy who were considered moderate religious leaders.
On April 12, 1963, those eight clergy asked King to delay civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham. That same day, King was arrested and put in the Birmingham Jail.
His epic response still echoes through American history.
King started writing the letter from his jail cell, then polished and rewrote it in subsequent drafts, addressing it as an open letter to the eight Birmingham clergy.
King’s letter eloquently stated the case for racial equality and the immediate need for social justice. “I had hoped,” King wrote at one point, “that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”
The letter was distributed to the media, published in newspapers and magazines in the months after the Birmingham demonstrations, and it appeared in his book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” in 1964. The eight clergy have been pilloried in history for their stance.
King’s letter, with its criticism of the white clergy opposition, made them look as if they were opposed to the civil rights movement.
But their positions were more nuanced than that, said Samford professor Jonathan Bass, whose 2001 book, “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” focuses on the writing of King’s letter and the personal stories of the eight clergy King addressed.
In January 1963, those same clergy had signed a letter in response to Gov. George Wallace’s harsh segregationist rhetoric, warning it could lead to violence.
“They were widely hailed for being among the most progressive religious leaders in the South,” Bass said. “They got a ton of hate mail from segregationists. All of them were harassed because of that statement.”
The Rev. Earl Stallings, pastor of First Baptist Church of Birmingham from 1961-65, was one of the eight clergy addressed by King in the letter.
Bass in his book argued that Stallings and some of the other white clergy in many ways had been more thoughtful on racial issues than history has given them credit for.
The other, all now deceased, members of the eight clergy addressed by King in his letter were Rabbi Milton Grafman of Temple Emanu-El; Catholic Bishop Joseph A. Durick; Methodist Bishop Nolan Harmon, Episcopal Bishop Charles C.J. Carpenter, Episcopal Bishop Co-Adjutor George M. Murray, Methodist Bishop Paul Hardin and the Rev. Ed Ramage of First Presbyterian Church.
Bass noted the progressive sermons on racial issues preached by Stallings from his First Baptist pulpit; the spiritual and social leadership in the city by Rabbi Grafman, and the transformation of Bishop Durick into a civil rights crusader who was the only white on the platform during a memorial service for King at Memphis City Hall. After the assassination of King, Durick gave a three-minute eulogy, along with widow Coretta Scott King and other speakers.
After Durick retired, he returned to Alabama to live in a house in Bessemer until his death in 1994. After Rabbi Grafman retired, he remained in Birmingham until his death in 1995, but was always troubled by criticism he received for opposing King’s timing.
Because King addressed his letter to them by name, they were put in the position of looking to posterity as if they opposed King’s goals rather than the timing of the demonstration, Rabbi Grafman said.
“These eight men were put in the position of looking like bigots,” Rabbi Grafman once said. “They were all moderates or liberals. There was no argument with the goals. The objection was to making it seem as though these eight men were opposed to his goals.”
Rabbi Grafman was on the bi-racial Community Affairs Committee and one of six clergy who met with President John F. Kennedy in 1963 to discuss Birmingham’s racial tensions.
Grafman said the eight clergy were among Birmingham’s moderate leaders who were working for civil rights. But they feared the demonstrations would lead to violence and felt the newly elected city government could achieve progress peacefully.
In their open letter published in The Birmingham News, they urged King not to go ahead with demonstrations and marches, saying such action was untimely after the election of a new city government. King got a copy of the newspaper, read their letter in jail, and began writing a response on scraps of paper.
“He could assume the identity of the Apostle Paul and write this letter from a jail cell to Christians,” Bass said.
Rabbi Grafman often pointed out that then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, The Washington Post, and others also said King’s efforts were ill-timed and that he should give the new city government a chance. But the eight clergy came off looking bad for posterity, their names attached to the top of King’s elegant document when it was reprinted in history and literary textbooks.
Even after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in September 1963, the group of white clergy was still looked to for leadership on racial issues. President John F. Kennedy invited the group to Washington, D.C.
With the clergy gathered around him, Kennedy sat in a rocking chair and urged them to further racial process in Birmingham and bring the moral strength of religion to bear on the issue.
King’s letter has grown in stature and significance with the passage of time.
The eight clergy it was addressed to did not receive copies and didn’t see it until it was published in magazine form.
“It’s not written for them, it’s written for whites outside the South who were highly critical of the movement, all those who were questioning King’s tactics, and his leadership,” Bass said.
“It’s the symbolic finale of the Birmingham movement. It’s the exclamation point at the end.”