In his new book, Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church, Edward Gilbreath recaptures what we have lost in the sound bits of King’s words and by embracing the myth of a post-racial America. Gilbreath immediately sets the stage by dropping the readers into the world, thoughts, and racial realities of the late 1950s America. He does this by interweaving historic and the racially charged events leading up to and surrounding Birmingham, along with the personal story, upbringing, challenges, and failures of Dr. King.
Additionally, Gilbreath introduces and educates readers about the life and convictions of a lesser known figure who was a significant contrast to King, Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth. Without Shuttlesworth, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (in which King was President) would have never went to Birmingham and without Shuttlesworth, Birmingham most certainly would not have been a success. Shuttlesworth was the protagonist of this movement. He called upon the SCLC to come to Birmingham—plagued by its racial and class divisions—because he firmly believed that Birmingham could be a catalyst for change in the entire country.
So Dr. King reluctantly went to Birmingham stating, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” They initiated Project Confrontation or “Project C” and when King was arrested, it looked as if the campaign was doomed to failure…but God. In an ironic act of justice, eight local preachers from Alabama drafted a joint statement encouraging action from local ministry and political leaders. Essentially they were saying, “Wait. Trust the political process and we do not need outsiders coming into town and causing unnecessary drama among our citizens.” It was an indirect shot at King and the campaign.
Once someone slipped King a newspaper containing the letter, Dr. King was disheartened and compelled to write. He understood the power of the media and decided to use his words to bring press and attention back to Birmingham. In the margins of that newspaper, he penned the first draft of the Letter from Birmingham Jail to challenge the eight clergymen, but also to challenge the accepted injustices against Blacks overall.
“Reading the eight ministers’ statement today reveals much about the confusing times in which it was composed and the differences between white and black perspectives on the racial situation in the South. The white clergy, for instance, placed confidence in the judicial system and the Birmingham police, which would have been a stretch for many African Americans given the way those institutions had regarded (or disregarded) them and their concerns in the past (82-83).” And this is the reality in which we are still confronted with today. Gilbreath draws connections between the racial tensions of the past and the injustices we currently face in the America and the church regarding public education, the judicial system, and immigration reform.
I love that Gilbreath does not waste words in this book. Every word is thoughtfully placed with purpose. He reminds us of the original sins of oppression and injustice in our nation and does not allow us to forget the consequences of those sins that are still engrained in the soil of this nation and in the hearts of some of her people. Perhaps the biggest questions we are called to address as a united Church are, “How are we going to respond to the injustices of our day? Will we turn a blind eye and pretend it is not our problem? Will we place our loyalties in politics, apart from the biblical convictions and the teachings of Jesus?”
What will we do when we come to understand that we are at a critical point in American history and in the church? God has reformed and he continues to reform his church. That’s the truth we embrace in the prophetic writings and actions of Martin Luther and his name sake Martin Luther King, Jr. In this book, Edward Gilbreath is again calling the Church to repent and reform.
Read the Statement by Alabama Clergymen.
Read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.