Book Reviews


Professor dispels myths behind King’s letter

As published in The Birmingham News Arts/Books section

April 1963 saw editors at the two daily newspapers in Birmingham downplay the civil rights demonstrators by ignoring them in print. Forty years since the editorial “black out,” journalists have been writing the history of the civil rights movement.

By the time students reach high school, they have seen the textbook images of dogs and fire hoses and they have read or heard Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

Few people, however, know the tremendous personal and professional upheaval the eight ministers to whom King addressed his famous words experienced during the aftermath of this national drama when the world’s spotlight had dimmed.

In his book, Dr. Jonathan Bass, an associate professor of history at Samford University, examines the lives of these eight religious leaders, the moral crisis they faced and the institutional and personal ramifications of their choices. Blessed Are the Peacemakers is a close look at the role of the clergy in society and how social change affected the lives of eight spiritual leaders in a deeply divided community. It is also an important analysis of the media’s role in shaping the perceptions of historical events that occurred in Birmingham in 1963.

In the tradition of Southern historians like C. Vann Woodward, Bass looks behind the popular myth of Kings legacy; as part of a new generation of younger Southern historians, he incorporates a significant among of oral history with his research from personal records and public archives. It took six to eight years for Bass to cultivate and gain the trust of Earl Stallings, the Baptist minister who, when harassed by his conservative congregation, moved from Birmingham and who 30 years later had little interest in reexamining those times. When Bass first contacted Stallings to ask him questions, Stallings hung up. Journalists had simplified his story once before.

Bass employs a journalist’s investigative skills in this scholarly work while providing as in-depth analysis from years of extensive research as a trained historian.

He interviewed Nolan Harmon Jr. one week before his 100th birthday and Edward Ramage’s widow 14 years after her husband’s death. She then allowed Bass access to Ramage’s study, still unchanged since the day he died.

Wealth of Information

His exhaustive research unearthed vehement personal letters from angry segregationists. His hours of interviewing all but the two ministers succeed in drawing forth a wealth of personal information and documentation.

Though from varied backgrounds, the Methodist Nolan Harmon, Kr., the Episcopal Bishop Charles Carpenter, the Episcopal Bishop George Murray, the Methodist Bishop Paul Hardin Jr., the Rabbi Milton Grafman, the Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Durick, the Presbyterian pastor Edward Ramage and the Baptist preacher Earl Stallings, all “gradualists” in their moral stance to integration, found themselves in the untenable position of being condemned by both hardline segregationists and impassioned integrationists. Bass gives voice to these forgotten men whose role as eight white racists from Birmingham has been simplified in history thus far.

Dispels mythology

An academic read, this microscopic analysis of King penning his famous epistle from the Birmingham jail is accessible to the lay reader, but it is not necessarily an “easy” read. Bass dispels the national mythology of the heroic leader writing a “flawless literary masterpiece” alone in a dark jail cell. He unravels the creation myth and dissemination of the Letter as a spontaneous event by showing the details behind the document, which was intended first and foremost for the media.

According to Dr. Harriet Amos Doss, a professor of history at UAB, Bass helps complete the context of events in Birmingham in 1963. Typically, the focus has been on black leadership. Blessed Are the Peacemakers is not the typical “top down” look at the civil rights movement. Instead, Bass, a “media historian,” contributes the stories of eight white ministers whose association with this public relations campaign forces them to choose between the Southern paternalism King attacks as “America’s greatest stumbling block to freedom” or a dangerous activism.

Community roles

Bass also explores the role these men played within their communities. Carpenter, an outspoken critic of “rabble rousers,” disagreed with the Episcopalian National Councils’ view that Christian doctrine supported civil disobedience.

Depending on church hierarchy and the congregation’s control, the institutional ramifications varied from the supportive community Grafman experienced to the personal abuse suffered by Stallings and Ramage, both subject to their congregations’ whim. Bass remarks that Harmon and Carpenter, the oldest clergy, were at worst “morally blind defenders of the status quo” and at best “ultra-gradualists” who remained “static figures.” The younger clergy, however, never found peace.

Bass paints a portrait of the precarious position in which these “religious rogues” placed themselves. With the vehemence of rabid fans ousting an unsuccessful football coach, the segregationists sitting in Ramage and Stallings’ pews decide to purge these integrationist pastors from their pulpits. Choosing to act as “spiritual leaders rather than social followers,” Ramage and Stallings faced an “un-Christian persecution” without institutional shelter from “violent reprisals.”

Neither condemning nor glorifying these men and their complex responses to the moral crisis they experienced, Bass provides the personal, social, and historical context to understand their choices. His examination of each individual’s background explains the complicated reasons why they spoke out against King, examining the events through their perspective, instead of King’s version.

In Blessed Are the Peacemakers, Bass emphasizes the impersonal reality behind the myth of a very personal document. He shows how King’s idea to write an open letter, foreshadowed in the Albany movement in 1962, was considered on several occasions prior to Birmingham. He explains how King first wrote the letter on the margins of his April 13 copy of The Birmingham News where the informal group of ministers had, following the lead of other ministerial groups around the South, published their second call for “law and order,” the Good Friday statement, headlined as “White Clergy Urge Local Negroes to Withdraw from Demonstrations.” Bass looks at the document’s different versions and King’s reliance on previous ideas and writings for material included in Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

According to Bass, a black attendant provided additional scraps of paper for King to use, and King’s attorneys smuggled these notes and different drafts to several key players in the movement while he was in jail. Wyatt Walker’s personal secretary, Willie Pearl Mackey, typed the letter from these scraps of paper scribbled with “chicken scratch” handwriting. She also pieced them together as the document continued to be revised and edited after King’s release. When the Birmingham operation broke down, Walker unknowingly discarded these scraps of paper.

Other findings

Bass uncovers the makings of a national mythology behind the letter’s initial press release through its evolution into a book. Only a year later, King and his ghostwriters publish Why We Can’t Wait, misspelling two of the ministers’ names. A charismatic and shrewd media manipulator, King never met any of these men he used as a “symbolic audience” and he never sent them a personal copy of the letter. It was Bishop Durick who, after six years of social activism that revolutionized the Catholic Church in Tennessee, secured Ralph Abernathy’s support at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Memphis in 1969.

Bass concludes that history should remember these men “not as misguided opponents of Martin Luther King, but as individuals with diverse ideas on the volatile segregation issue who struggled with social change the way all people do one way or another.” In Blessed Are the Peacemakers, Bass dispels a popular myth and introduces eight new pivotal characters to the dramatic story of the civil rights movement in Birmingham during the spring of 1963.

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