Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation (Hardcover)
"I am in Birmingham because injustice is here," declared Martin Luther King, Jr. He had come to that city of racist terror convinced that massive protest could topple Jim Crow. But the insurgency faltered. To revive it, King made a sacrificial act on Good Friday, April 12, 1963: he was arrested. Alone in his cell, reading a newspaper, he found a statement from eight "moderate" clergymen who branded the protests extremist and "untimely."
King drafted a furious rebuttal that emerged as the "Letter from Birmingham Jail"-a work that would take its place among the masterpieces of American moral argument alongside those of Thoreau and Lincoln. His insistence on the urgency of "Freedom Now" would inspire not just the marchers of Birmingham and Selma, but peaceful insurgents from Tiananmen to Tahrir Squares.
Scholar Jonathan Rieder delves deeper than anyone before into the Letter-illuminating both its timeless message and its crucial position in the history of civil rights. Rieder has interviewed King's surviving colleagues, and located rare audiotapes of King speaking in the mass meetings of 1963. Gospel of Freedom gives us a startling perspective on the Letter and the man who wrote it: an angry prophet who chastised American whites, found solace in the faith and resilience of the slaves, and knew that moral appeal without struggle never brings justice.
About the Author
Jonathan Rieder is professor of sociology at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is the author of The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism. He has been a regular commentator on TV and radio, a contributor to the New York Times Book Review, and a contributing editor for the New Republic.
“Rieder offers a sparkling reconsideration of the letter…. Rieder's trenchant comments approach the letter on historical and literary grounds but also as a way to better understand the often elusive King…. A slim volume that packs plenty of punch, Gospel of Freedom is a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the civil rights movement, King, and America itself.” —June Sawyers, Booklist (starred review)
“Deeply informed by his knowledge of King's speeches and other writings, Rieder's meticulous reading of the 'Letter' is invigorating.” —The New Republic
“A fresh perspective on Dr. King's message... What distinguishes this work is the author's close reading of King's letter and his explorations of its origins and aftermath... By analyzing the 'Letter' as both literature and moral imperative, Rieder adds to his subject's considerable legacy.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Rieder's middle chapters include richly detailed interpretations revealing King's brilliance as an advocate for equality. He portrays King the diplomat as a patient teacher who later transformed into a raging Old Testament prophet who forcefully condemned racism. VERDICT This book's significance lies in its interpretation of the letter, which was itself published later in 1963, and its insights into the often inscrutable King.” —Karl Helicher, Library Journal
“Mr. Rieder has brought together a great deal of research, studying archived recordings of King's talks and sermons as well as digging deep into the events of the campaign. Especially apt is the attention he has given to Birmingham's local civil-rights leaders--the great Fred Shuttlesworth, for instance, a man whom Klansmen repeatedly tried to assassinate and whom Bull Connor's fire hoses would gravely injure in May.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Rieder assumes a familiarity with the text as he analyzes the letter and displays a remarkably deep knowledge of King's larger body of work, with cross-references and connections to other sermons and writings. Perhaps the most powerful and instructive of these comparisons is in relation to the ‘I Have a Dream' speech, given a few months after the letter was penned.” —Publishers Weekly
“A brilliant new reading of ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.' Rieder rescues a document too often encased in abstraction, insisting we read it in its searing moment: amidst the violence, hope, and courage of the struggle for racial justice in which it was born. Gospel of Freedom is an indispensable guide to one of the most important documents of the twentieth century.” —Daniel T. Rodgers, the Lea Professor of History, Princeton University, author of Age of Fracture
“‘Letter from Birmingham Jail' has been long overshadowed by Martin Luther King's ‘I Have a Dream' speech. Now Jonathan Rieder has written a vital book that gives the Birmingham letter its due as a piece of sacred literature in the long war against Jim Crow. A compelling book.” —Jon Meacham, author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House and Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
“Beautifully written and deeply illuminating, Gospel of Freedom is the rare book that engages both the general reader and scholarly specialists. It's a lesson in using the art of close reading to reveal the complexity of historical context. Rieder allows us to see the world through the King's eyes, a feat worth celebrating.” —Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor of History, African American Studies, and American Studies, Yale University
“With freedom songs and racist chants rising off the pages like steam from summer streets, Jonathan Rieder's stirring stage-setting for King's ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail' brims with passion, rage, and fragile hope.” —Melissa Fay Greene, author of Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing
“For those of us who fought the fight for freedom in Birmingham , Jonathan Rieder's Gospel of Freedom brings alive the extraordinary events of 1963 with insight and eloquence. With the help of rare recordings, he powerfully evokes what it felt like and sounded like to hear Martin speaking--when despondent, indignant, or joyous. Above all, Rieder beautifully captures the spirit of fierce but loving defiance that was key not just to Martin's ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail' but all our efforts to transform America into a vital democracy.” —Ambassador Andrew Young
“Eloquent and prophetic. Rieder does for our uniquely American saint's ‘Letter' what St. Augustine did for the Letters of St. Paul. Part commentary, part homily, part exhortation to the faithful, Gospel of Freedom reminds us of ‘the fierce urgency of now.'” —Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies, Jewish Theological Seminary
“An extraordinary book. Rieder is the first scholar to illuminate the entire breadth and depth of this remarkable document, with uncommon skill and unblinking honesty. No serious student of the African American freedom struggle can afford to overlook this volume.” —Raymond Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders
“Absolutely brilliant. . .Fantastic, an amazing book.” —Henry Louis Gates on The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr
“Arguably the most creative book about King to date.” —The Christian Century on The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr
“Eye opening. . .Rieder provides the best anatomy of King's verbal imagination yet.” —The Nation on The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr