Sociologist Jonathan Rieder

The noted scholar explains the motivation for his latest text on Dr. King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and the struggle that changed a nation.

Jonathan Rieder is the author of the just published Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation. He is a sociologist at Barnard College, Columbia University whose previous books include 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. A founding co-editor of CommonQuest: The Magazine of Black-Jewish Relations, he was a contributing editor of The New Republic and a regular contributor to The New York Sunday Times Book Review.


Tavis: On April 12th almost 50 year ago, Martin Luther King Jr., seeing that the battle to end Jim Crow was faltering in the face of unrelenting violence, made a courageous decision.

He allowed himself to be arrested and put in the Birmingham, Alabama jail cell, where he read a newspaper that quoted moderate white clergy as claiming that civil rights protests were “extreme and untimely.”

In response, Dr. King wrote and eloquent and an impassioned rebuttal to that negative assessment, now known, of course, as the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”

Columbia University scholar and sociology professor Jonathan Rieder has taken a close look at that pivotal document in a new book titled “Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle that Changed a Nation.” Professor Rieder, good to have you on this program.

Professor Jonathan Rieder: Lovely to be here.

Tavis: Let me start by asking what it was that made you want to, 50 years later, dissect this letter?

Rieder: Well, at the most basic level, I’ve always been drawn to the letter. It has a glorious complexity. Simply, it’s full of swerves and swings. You see King, the high-minded King appealing to Buber and Tillich and these fancy philosophic notions, but you also see a King who’s bristling with indignation.

One moment he’s taking you on a voyage deep into the white Southern soul: “I wonder what kind of people worship there. Who is their God?” The next moment, he’s taking whites into a tour of the inner recesses of Black vulnerability.

So basically it’s fascinating, but more importantly, in my last book, “The Word of the Lord is Upon Me,” I was more interested in style and performance and I felt I needed to say more about tough substance of Dr. King. In many ways, “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” is King’s fullest statement about race in America.

If you know how to read the letter in the light of all of King’s other performances and appearances, you meet King anew, and it’s a surprising King in many ways.

Tavis: When you say, and I’m paraphrasing here, his most details, the fullest expression of King on race relations, you mean by that what?

Rieder: Well, he gives here his view of social change, the role of moral appeal. Really, the limited role of moral appeal by itself to change white hearts. There’s a tremendous statement about Black self-sufficiency, that people don’t understand is so central to the core of Dr. King.

All that is in this letter that many people see as just a treatise on civil disobedience. It is so much more than that, and that’s the sense in which it’s so full.

Tavis: I want to come back to the letter in just a second. Let’s set the stage for those who, of course, weren’t around 50 years ago, or for those who have forgotten the events that led to King being arrested on Good Friday –

Rieder: Sure.

Tavis: – 50 years ago. Set the stage for what’s happening in Birmingham, and how King found himself in jail to begin with.

Rieder: Well, King had decided to go to Birmingham after what was seen as a failure in Albany, Georgia. They really thought in Birmingham they were going to do it differently. It would be more planful. They were learning as they went.

They were going into what was one of the most frighteningly racist towns in the whole country, so they really felt that if they cracked Birmingham, they could crack Jim Crow.

I won’t go through the whole story, but in those weeks leading up to jail, things weren’t going well. The Black people of Birmingham and the Black clergy were not responding to King’s call to go forward.

You hear a very frustrated King, who’s disappointed in Black people before he’s disappointed at the white clergymen in the letter, and he’s saying, he imagines a conversation between Moses and God a few weeks before this all happens in which God is telling Moses, “Why are you having the children of Israel complain to me to take them to the Promised Land? They’ve got to go there themselves.”

You hear King in God’s voice saying, “I can’t do it alone.” You could hear the frustration starting to rise in King. So in those few days before Good Friday, he realizes they’re in a crisis. They may lose, after all they’ve gambled.

They’ve gone all-in, and finally a reluctant King decides he’s going to court arrest because that’s what he needs to do to sort of jar the people of Birmingham forward.

Tavis: For those who I know are asking at home right now, was the Good Friday arrest, was it planned? Did it just happen that way?

Rieder: There’s some ambiguity about that, but certainly by the middle – they understood the symbolism of Easter.

King, for all his Exodus passion and love of that narrative, identified with Jesus more than Moses. Jesus was his primal identification, so his view of himself as suffering on the cross, that he would suffer for his people so they could be redeemed, that was built in from the beginning.

But even in the last few days, he was unsure. It was Ralph Abernathy, his colleague, who the Wednesday night before Good Friday or Thursday, rather, before Good Friday, gives an incredible version of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” and he ends, “Will you join my disciples, Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy, tomorrow?”

In a sense, Abernathy was ahead of King, because King was faltering in the spirit. He was a very human prophet. That’s where things were in those final, very dicey hours before King finally decided to go forward.

Tavis: Yeah. With King, everything is a story. Because I’m such a student of King, I love the back story to these precious and prophetic moments in history. But there’s a story even to how King got a newspaper. It’s not like you go to jail, they just bring you a newspaper every day, and coffee and crumpets. It doesn’t quite work that way. So tell the story of how King even got access to a newspaper.

Rieder: Well again, there’s some debate on this.

Tavis: Yeah.

Rieder: But I found a rare tape of Dr. King preaching. It’s the first time he addresses a mass meeting after he gets out of Birmingham jail. It’s on April 22nd, and you can hear him.

He delivers a version of “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” to a Black audience, and it’s refigured for Black people. He says – it’s his “down home” voice that you don’t hear so much.

“You go to jail and you meet a friend, and they gotta bring you some breakfast, and they gotta bring you some lunch. And they say, ‘Reverend, I know what you represent, and tomorrow morning I’ll sneak you the paper.'” So when he tells that story, even that’s a moment of Black solidarity with the Black trustee who sneaks him the paper.

Tavis: Talk, then, about King’s reaction when he reads this editorial in the paper by these clergymen, these white clergymen who are saying essentially that it’s ill-timed; this is not the right strategy. Tell me more about the letter, and then we’ll talk – the op-ed piece, rather, and then we’ll talk about King’s response to it.

Rieder: It’s really important to understanding King in the letter, the mood he was in. So he had faltered down in jail, he had plunged into depression and a kind of panic. He was in bad shape. It was the first time he’d ever been in jail without Ralph Abernathy in the cell.

He described it himself as a kind of terrible moment, but he reads the letter, and suddenly he’s spiraling up out of the valley, up the mountain again, on a tide of indignation. He’s furious. He’s exasperated.

When Clarence Jones gets in to see him, his lawyer and friend, on April 16th, and King has been in solitary, he’s been kind of shaky, he can see that King is in a snit, and he can see that King has been writing, jotting down things, on the margins of newspapers and on toilet tissue, eventually, because he had no writing utensils.

Jones is thinking, “Oh my Lord, I thought he’d lost it.” He was so angry. You have to understand the indignation at these white clergymen saying why didn’t you wait? It’s untimely, and you precipitated violence.

Reverend Wyatt T. Walker was sort of the general of the logistics of Birmingham. He was thinking why waste your time answering? His initial reaction – why answer a bunch of white clergymen? It’s what we expected from them.

Perhaps King did too, but that fury at the treatment of his race and of his sacred view of nonviolence. I think the fact that they said, “Why didn’t you wait,” that’s what really put him over. Because what has he been doing? For years he’s been saying “There comes a time. The time is now. Now is the time. Now is the time.”

The fact that it’s clergymen, who represent, allegedly, the most moderate and enlightened clergy in Alabama, can’t tell him from Bull Connor? They’re both “extremists?” The human part of this is indignation and bristling, not fancy philosophy, is the first thing that drives the letter.

Tavis: What was happening to make these white clergy even put something like this in the local newspaper?

Rieder: Okay, there are eight of them.

There was the local rabbi, there was the priests, Catholic priest and the rest were from every denomination of Protestantism. All eight of them had signed a statement condemning George Wallace’s inaugural speech in January, just a few months before.

So they thought of themselves, again, as moderates. Even more than moderates – in the context of Alabama, they were relative, again, the enlightened folk, as it were.

So the fact that it was moderate and enlightened white clergy who saw what King was doing as create agitation that would create ill will among the races. Tells you something about the mind-set of even the moderates, who end up being the focus of “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”

This was King getting frustrated with Bobby Kennedy back in Albany. Bobby Kennedy says, “How can you violate an injunction when we’re trying to get people to pay attention to Brown v Board and desegregation? King explodes on the phone at Robert Kennedy, and Kennedy is so taken aback he hands the phone over to Burke Marshall.

So this anger that had been building, and frustration over moderate whites saying go slow, be cautious, don’t push things, was all embodied in these eight white ministers who basically said nothing about love the Negro because he is your brother.

These are clergymen simply saying protest is extreme, is violent. It causes bad feelings. Wait, because the new administration will come along. It just got to King. You can really see, as Wyatt Walker put it, “His cup of endureth runneth over.”

So we need to start, that’s why that letter is so important, from the clergy, to understand it encapsulated not just the eight clergy. It was King’s whole view of the Kennedy administration, white moderation, and the nation that was not willing to become indignant over the affliction of their Black brothers and sisters.

Tavis: Let me move from those moderate preachers to another group that you raised earlier in this conversation, Professor Rieder, and that is these African American preachers, Black preachers, Negro, colored, at the time.

This is a part of history that isn’t known so well. I think there is this sense that King was the crème de la crème and every Black church in America welcomed Dr. King, and he could always get an audience inside of a Black church.

Indeed, as you intimated earlier, inside of Alabama and across the country there were all kinds of Black churches that wouldn’t come anywhere near Dr. King. Certainly at the end of King’s life, in the last couple of years, certainly after his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, he couldn’t get anywhere near a Black church, or for that matter, anywhere near an audience, period. Everybody wanted to shun him.

But talk specifically at this moment, at this breaking point in the city of Birmingham, which was so bad it the time it was called “Bombingham,” at this particular moment, talk to me about what the Black clergy in that city – not all, but certainly most of them – their sense of running away from King.

Rieder: Well, there are many levels to this, as there always are in clergy politics. But Andrew Young –

Tavis: Ain’t no politics like clergy politics. (Laughter)

Rieder: Well, that was very much there. So Andrew Young estimated they had the support of about 5 percent of the Black churches in Birmingham, to give you –

Tavis: Five percent?

Rieder: Five percent.

Tavis: I wasn’t a math major. That means 95 percent of the Black preachers in Birmingham were not with Dr. King.

Rieder: And I’m not a mathematical social scientist, so thank you for helping me. (Laughter) So talk about a world of trouble and hurt.

Tavis: Right.

Rieder: King had Fred Shuttlesworth, another prophetic, fearless man. We don’t want to forget that King was piggybacking on Shuttlesworth’s movement, who had been fighting the Klan and Bull Connor and racism ever since the mid-’50s.

So there was Fred Shuttlesworth’s church, and there were a couple of others here and there, but basically they only had four or five of these churches in which to have their mass meetings, even.

There were also issues where the major guy in the Black Baptist Ministerial Association I think felt a little bit like who is this interloper, to come into our town? This big guy, just because he comes in from Atlanta and says “Jump,” we’re supposed to say, “How high?”

In fairness to some of the Black professional classes and religious bodies that opposed King, the setup wasn’t utterly with consultation, because King and Shuttlesworth were really afraid that if this got out, then they would not be able to pull it off. They had to keep it secret.

So a lot of complexity. It was not like the African American community said, “Come here, Dr. King. You’re our leader.” Very tough.

Tavis: So King is the recipient of a newspaper that gets snuck into the jail cell. He reads this treatise from these white clergy, as it were, starts making notes in the margins of the paper, on toilet paper in the jail cell, and Clarence Jones comes into the picture now, Clarence Jones, his attorney, who’s a friend of mine, been on this show any number of times, ends up sneaking this letter out of the jail cell, we are told. Tell me about Clarence and Dr. King and how the letter got out.

Rieder: Well, so Clarence begins to smuggle some of these jottings. (Laughs) He’s actually being asked to stuff these jottings into his pants. He’s hiding it. He’s got to get it out past the guards. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen with it. There is a little bit of comedic theater going on here.

He gets it out to Wyatt T. Walker, who’s really the man who supervises the production of the letter. Wyatt Walker is able to kind of decipher King’s scrawl, and remember, King is making these arguments, and there are arrows and arabesques, and they’re trying to figure it out.

There’s a 17-year-old woman from I think Vidalia, Georgia, typing it up, and she’s going, “Well, Dr. King may preach good, but he sure can’t write,” because she can’t figure out what he’s saying and what’s going on.

So there is, out of such a grand and grandiose document, the back stage of the kind of production which is comedic and a logistical nightmare in certain ways. Within a few days, King has access to other people than Clarence Jones and there is a relay system that’s sneaking the polished draft back for him to revisit, and the rest we know is history, in some sense.

Wyatt Walker, Andrew Young, who was very close to King at that time, all the people who were close to this will say in many respects they didn’t understand how important the document was going to be, and it appears that some of these initial jottings of King were actually thrown out.

The woman was typing them up and they weren’t paying attention to it, because after all, they had a social movement to run. They’re trying to liberate Black people, not create a philosophy treatise for the seminar, as it were.

Tavis: Talk to me about the audience for this letter. The audience, as you mentioned, in part was the moderate, the moderate person in Birmingham, and for that matter, across the nation on the issue of race relations. Why did that end up being the focus of King’s letter?

Rieder: I think this is the critical question to grasping the radicalism of King’s analysis, even in ’63. Many people date his becoming more radical as the years went by, and certainly in tone it did. But I think you can see all the elements of that prophet against war and poverty that we know from 1968 and ’69, in substance, right in this letter.

So why the moderate? King says – we have to remember that he starts out trying to persuade the moderate, and he’s the diplomat in the first half of the letter. He wants to justify nonviolence and get them to understand why Blacks are impatient.

So there’s a kind of diplomatic effort, but then he shifts radically to chiding and chastising. Both in the diplomacy and the chastising, underneath it is this fundamental fact about King: He didn’t think that very many whites had very much empathy.

He wasn’t naïve about the power of moral appeal to change hearts absent social protest. He had faith, not in the pieties of American exceptionalism, and we are destined to be a redeemer nation, but in the power of Black people’s bottomless vitality. They went back to the slaves.

What he says is, “I believe the stumbling block to the liberation of Black people is not the Klan, but all the decent white people, the appalling silence of white people.” That’s the first time he uses the word. We will have to repent.

The voice of the prophet is there early on in that typical King way. It’s modulated. Doesn’t sound like he does sometimes later and earlier, when he’s really whooping it up against that God is saying not just I love you, Israel, but I’m going to chastise you.

But that voice is there all along, because as he sees it, the sin is not only racism, but it’s all the people who sit on the sideline and are indifferent to the suffering of humanity. It’s an exact parallel to what he preaches with Dives and Lazarus.

What is the sin of Dives? Not that he was a rich man, but he walked by the suffering, sore-covered, gimpy, beggar at his door and did not recognize him.

This is where King’s radical Christianity focuses on the good people for their appalling silence, and it’s the moderates who are the stumbling block. So who does he mean? He means the core of American culture.

Now, he doesn’t come out and say, “God damn America,” but the content of it is very close to that in the letter, if you think of the substance of the message.

Tavis: I’m glad you went there, because obviously, when people hear that phrase these days, they think of Jeremiah Wright and all the trouble he got into during the Obama campaign when Fox News took that comment and didn’t put it in a Kingian context, but put it in the context of pushing back on the notion of American exceptionalism, and Obama has to distance himself from Jeremiah Wright.

You’re absolutely right about the fact it is Kingian to the core if you understand what Jeremiah Wright was saying. But I’m not going to debate Jeremiah Wright again.

The reason why I raise it is because, and I’ve raised this issue before on this program and elsewhere, as we move toward the 50th anniversary later this summer, so we’ve got 50 years now since the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” Later this summer in August, 50 years since the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Care to guess which one’s going to get the most exposure? And you know why, and I want to get your take on that. Why is it that we don’t want to wrestle with this side of King, but we will revel in that “I Have a Dream” prose year in, year out, decade in, decade out? But we don’t want to wrestle with the rest of who he was and is.

Rieder: Well, let me just sort of back up one second and say one of the things that I try to show in “Gospel of Freedom,” that once you read “I Have a Dream” in the light of the “Letter,” you realize the “I Have a Dream” is just as tough. It’s gentler, because what is that about?

It’s really about the exceptional nation – “I have a dream that America one day will be a land where my children can be judged by the content of their character.” What is he saying? That country doesn’t exist now.

The prophetic denunciation is right there. He starts out 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Tavis: The first part is tough. We don’t want to deal with the first part of that (crosstalk).

Rieder: But even the second part is just as tough, if you look at it.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Rieder: He ends in the slave notion. That nation, we will not be able to sing “My Country, Tis of Thee” until we protest together. Okay, but I’ll put that aside. So even the “I Have a Dream” is less dreamy than is made out to be.

I think the answer to your fundamental question is, like as King saw, what is the sin of humanity? This is not limited to white people; it’s all people, of not caring about fellow humanity.

People like the dreaminess because it’s easy. It’s unsettling. So if we thought about what does that dream mean today in 2013, what does the letter mean in 2013, it means I cannot be like Dives ignoring poor Lazarus.

Well, who’s poor Lazarus? Well, maybe it’s not all Black people in 1963, but there are all kinds of people starving in America. There are people without medical care in America. There are people who suffer all kinds of suffering, and around the world.

That’s the radicalism. So I think it’s simple. It’s King’s analysis that he says the church, after he takes on white moderates, the white church, and remember, he’s using whiteness. In Christ there may be no white and Black, east or west, but King is saying in a racist society, moderates are not all the same.

It’s the white moderate he’s most concerned about here, and he’s saying we have a nation that does not feel the empathy that King feels when he sees not just the starving in India or when he sees the starving in India as well as those poor kids in Marks, Mississippi.

Tavis: And here we are in 2013 with moderates who still don’t have courage, but I digress on that point. The new book from Professor Jonathan Rieder is called “Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle that Changed a Nation.”

I want you to get the book and to read it. It’s a wonderful deconstruction and dissection of King’s letter. But even if you are at home right now watching this program, you can go online and just Google the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”

Just read the letter. Just do me a favor, and more importantly do yourself a favor and just go online right now, now that we’re off the air, and read the letter. (Laughter) Jon Rieder, good to have you on the program.

Rieder: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 8, 2013 at 1:04 pm