the letter from jail


Fifty years ago this month, Martin Luther King Jr. drafted a letter from a cramped cell in Birmingham, Alabama. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Jonathan Rieder says in his new book Gospel of Freedom, reveals a more complex King, tough and tender, in equal measure. Rieder’s narrative reflects a major shift in the way many historians now understand the African American freedom struggle. The new scholarship challenges the division of black activism into integrationism and separatism, blurring the previously sharp lines between non-violence and violence, civil rights and black power. Rieder aims to replace the “sunny view of King” as a quixotic champion of the American dream and interracial brotherhood with a fiercer and more uncompromising King, a man who consistently preached a doctrine of black self-sufficiency. Martin, in other words, wasn’t that far from Malcolm. While Rieder succeeds in showing us a more multifaceted King, he neglects the long history of African American rhetorical dissent that shaped King’s message.

more from Jeffrey Aaron Snyder at TNR here.