2013 was brimming with special-year anniversary commemorations. We celebrated events and people that have immeasurably shaped and defined our country and society. Perhaps most notably, the 50-year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream Speech’ dominated national consciousness by calling to our collective memory an electrifying moment of unity and promise. It’s certainly unquestionable that the Dream speech is worthy of remembrance and celebration. But even before the crowds jammed the streets of downtown D.C. last August, some commentators and activists were suggesting that maybe we focus too much on this one aspect of the civil rights movement, throwing the weight of the entire struggle and all of Dr. King’s contributions onto one oratorical delivery. It’s a valid point. We need to expand our view and explore other critical aspects of the struggle and the man. There was more than D.C.. Montgomery, Atlanta, Albany, Greensboro, and Selma each played prominent roles in the movement’s progression toward equality. And then there’s Birmingham.
Before King ever stepped to the podium in D.C., he was holed up in a dirty jail cell in Birmingham, dubbed “Bombingham” and home to “Dynamite Hill.” In a newly-released book, “Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church,” Ed Gilbreath revisits this pivotal period and location of the movement, and invites us to reflect with him on the titanic clash between recalcitrant segregationists, resolute civil rights activists, and a halting presidential administration that produced a seismic shift in the public’s thinking and lay the groundwork for future victories. We need this book: black America, particularly the black church; politicians and pundits; activists; and white Christians. All of us need to rediscover King as the “provocative prophet of social justice” Gilbreath reveals him to be. The church universal desperately needs to recover the prophetic tradition in which King operated. Gilbreath’s book guides us on a much-needed path to renewed commitment and passion for racial justice and reconciliation provoked by a response to the prophetic call of King, Birmingham, and the God who brought them together to change a nation.
“Birmingham Revolution,” while it does cover well-worn civil rights territory, doesn’t provide a sweeping tour of King’s life, the Civil Rights Movement, or the Letter From a Birmingham Jail. Rather, Gilbreath’s treatment is focused on the nexus of King’s involvement In the Birmingham campaign portion of the movement and the Letter’s role in articulating King’s feelings and position on the struggle and mission of the campaign and the movement. The scope and boundaries of the book show great discipline and restraint. “Birmingham Revolution” spares us the massive density of other civil-rights-chronicling books like Diane McWhorter’s 701-page Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, or the legendary heft of Taylor Branch’s America in the King Years three-part series, the middle volume of which tops out at 796 pages. Gilbreath’s book is a sleek 207 pages, including the index, acknowledgments, and notes. His tight focus gives the reader a mental and emotional target that facilitates critical thought and reflection.
The first couple of chapters are dense with names, dates, places, and other historical facts. Here, Gilbreath is in historian mode. For example, in chapter one, Birmingham Begins, he: gives a brief history of Birmingham’s founding; provides a biographical sketch of Eugene “Bull” Connor, the reigning police commissioner; references the murder of Emmett Till; describes the crucial role black churches and pastors played by providing spiritual leadership and mobilizing black citizens for action; and gives a colorful personal profile of Fred Shuttlesworth, membership chairman of the Birmingham chapter of the NAACP, and King’s right-hand man in Birmingham. The blunt force of all the history-book type data is softened by Gilbreath’s engaging writing style. Delightfully rich in fiction-esque details, the book sometimes reads like a fictionalized account of actual events. Take this excerpt of an imagined, but plausible, dialogue between King and the eight white clergy whose criticism prompted the Letter From a Birmingham Jail, constructed from snippets of both the clergy’s published statement and King’s Letter:
Birmingham Eight: Dr. King, we appreciate what you were able to accomplish in Montgomery when you lived there, but this is Birmingham. Why are you bringing a group of outsiders to our city? We believe our local white and Negro leadership should work together to solve our city’s problems.
King: Well, as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I received an invitation from our Alabama affiliate. But even more important, I came to Birmingham because injustice is here.
It seems that one of Gilbreath’s hopes for “Birmingham Revolution” is for people to see King in a three-dimensional way, walking away from the book with an integrated view of him that resists romantic notions and hero worship. Chapter two identifies 14 “key themes and experiences that defined King’s childhood, education, and early life”, which help us make valuable connections between who King really was and how that prepared him to step into his place in history. Equally facilitative of that goal is chapter seven, a gripping discussion of the anger King felt, and how he was able to transform that anger into a redemptive force that ignited within him a holy fire that seared the shortsighted critique of him and the movement, and also gave light and clarity to the movement’s followers for the future—this chapter alone really is worth the price of the book.
In the final analysis, the overarching brilliance and value of this book is its subtlety and the way Gilbreath has of suggesting, not preaching. It seems he doesn’t want to preach us happy in celebration of King and the victory of the Birmingham campaign, but to show us how we’re shortchanging ourselves by persisting in a narrow, diluted view of King. He wants to nudge us-firmly-in the direction of a more robust, courageous, and redemptive course of action on the road to racial justice and reconciliation; and to begin to explore the themes we can extrapolate from the text. His “concluding ideas” in the last chapter caused me to deeply consider the state of black leadership today, whether we will ever see another like King, and whether we need to. He leaves us exactly where he himself seems most comfortable: with questions, concepts, and ideas to ponder.
Stay tuned for part two of the “Birmingham Revolution” series which will be published this weekend. I will share my conversation with the author Ed Gilbreath wherein we discussed power and privilege, redemptive anger, and spiritual risk-taking, among other things.