Fifty years after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Barnard sociology professor Jonathan Rieder has published a new book examining this historic document and the man at the helm of the civil rights movement. In Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation (Bloomsbury), Prof. Rieder revisits this pivotal era in American history and evokes King’s voice using rare audio tapes from mass meetings in Birmingham in 1963. Below, Prof. Rieder answers questions about new ideas revealed through the audio tapes, the challenges of relaying an auditory experience through writing, and how the process of writing this book will impact his teaching.
As a scholar of King’s work, you were already deeply familiar with his writing and speaking style as detailed in your last book, The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. In listening to the audio recordings of his orations during Birmingham’s mass meetings in 1963, what did you find most revealing or surprising about what you heard?
The first time I heard these tapes, I was at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and I just had to stop. I found myself welling up. The tapes pulled me right back into the spring and summer of 1963, when the foundation of America’s racial order began to crack. This was the period when Birmingham’s black people began to rise up, when King went to jail and wrote the “Letter,” when Bull Connor deployed the snarling dogs and water hoses. Before it was all over, President Kennedy would be forced to finally address racism and segregation as a national and moral problem. He had avoided that up to that point.
There were a few tapes of the mass meetings available to scholars; mainly we all had to rely on the white police transcripts of them. But once I had access to these audio recordings, it was as if I could be actually present in those amazing meetings. I could hear King’s voice in all its emotional range, and the response of the people to him. You can hear him despondent and bitter right before he goes to jail, he’s yelling, “These Negroes who are not joining the movement are not fit to be free.” And he even castigates them as “traitors to their race.”
After he gets out of jail, on May 2, and the young people of Birmingham have taken to the streets for the first time, you hear him jubilant. We think of King as inspiring his fellow black people, but here is a case where the people of Birmingham have truly lifted and inspired him.
The next day, right after the Birmingham police used hoses and dogs for the first time—these were the images that drew national attention—you hear a subdued King saying, with almost childlike simplicity, “Birmingham was a mean city today,” as if white meanness has exhausted his capacity for exalted language. Then you hear him brimming with defiance: “Our black faces will stand up to their white tanks.” You hear one final aspect of King that he often hid behind a mask of dignity: the badass King, who could be irreverent, and sarcastic. The crowd almost always erupts when they encounter this more downhome, outrageous King.
The most powerful moment on these recordings comes on the alternative, preached, “black” version of the “Letter” I discovered, and it remains unknown until this day: It’s as if we are meeting King anew. After all the restraint involved in writing the “Letter,” it’s as if he’s been released not just from jail, but from all the control he’s been seething under. Here is no dreamer but a tough prophet, who did not think very many whites had very much empathy for black suffering, and he’s ready to chastise them. It’s all very powerful, as is King’s recognition that black people are basically alone in an indifferent America.
Can you talk about the challenge of sharing an audio experience in writing?
It wasn’t easy. One of my key aims in Gospel of Freedom was to explain the “Letter” by placing it alongside King’s visceral feelings and discontent and grievances voiced in the meetings before he went to jail and after he got out. My first inclination was to try and recreate the primal quality of what I was hearing, by including a lot of “Amens” and that type of thing. But my editor Peter Ginna at Bloomsbury Press is a very smart fellow, and he said, “I'm finding it distracting.” He had great judgment and helped me realize I was straining too hard. You can't really recreate the sound of King’s voice. Still, from time to time, I tried to evoke it as best I could. I brought some of that auditory texture into the text to give a better sense of what he was feeling. And just as importantly how the people were responding to him. I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out.
How do you expect that the experience of writing this book will impact your teaching going forward?
The process of researching and writing this book has reinforced my resolve to incorporate sound into the classroom experience. I can see the content of the tapes benefiting my First Year Seminar, where I’ve taught “A Letter from Birmingham Jail” for more than a decade. Year after year, I’ve continued to spot new things in the text long after I thought I’d exhausted everything I had to say about it. And the more I’ve listened to King, the more I’ve been able to “hear” more things in the text too.
So that constant spotting of new things ends up as a testimony to the richness of King the man, an artistic testimony as well as a spiritual one—his ability to take a “white” liberal protestant sermon form and infuse it with black pride; to shift between refined and downhome; to throw in little hints of a prophet’s voice when he’s rebuking whites. I’ve brought my own experience to my students; when I teach “I have a Dream;” I often have them read it first, then we listen and see what the verbal elements are saying in a different channel.
Similar issues of sound and how to deal with it in a classroom are sure to come up in a new course I’m getting ready to offer. It’s called “The Transformation of Rhythm and Blues into Soul Music (and Rock and Roll”), which has a lot to do with the process of black culture becoming American culture. As I’ve worked with the Birmingham tapes, I’ve come to realize this is a great opportunity to ramp up my pitifully elementary technical skills to figure out how to use those audio materials in the best fashion.
Watch an interview with Prof. Rieder on PBS's Tavis Smiley:
Read an excerpt from an interview with WBUR:
""Alone in jail, King plunges down into a kind of depression and panic combined," says Jonathan Rieder, a sociology professor at Barnard College who has written a new book on the letter called Gospel of Freedom. He says a guard smuggles King a newspaper where the letter from eight white ministers is published. They attack King and call the protests "unwise and untimely." Rieder says for King, that changes everything."
Read an excerpt from an interview with CNN:
"King's blackness -- his fierce racial pride, his distinctively black Christian faith and his belief that most whites were "unconscious racists" -- is on full display in his letter, scholars say. The anger that drove King's letter would become more prominent in the speeches King gave until, literally, his last hours, Rieder says.
"If there was a YouTube in 1968 and some of King's sermons would have been captured, he would have been seen as a Jeremiah Wright," says Rieder, invoking the name of President Obama's fiery former pastor."