Black Christian Women Now: The Strong Black Woman Complex

Black Christian Women Now: The Strong Black Woman Complex

Identity is a tricky pursuit. For black women in America, the pursuit is complicated by the stereotypes and image distortions put upon them by dominant culture—both male and white—and the ones into which they are socialized by their mothers, aunts, pastors, husbands, and friends. Every woman wants to be her own person; she wants to know and understand who she is for herself. But black women are shaped, pressed, and squeezed into a universal, truncated identity of superhuman “strength” that superimposes predetermined responses, beliefs, and roles onto an already complex existence. It used to be a source of pride and distinction to be called a ‘strong black woman’ but now women are awakening to the dangers of that double-edged sword. An identity that was thought to be protective and life-giving because it prevented hurt, pain, and damage is now being unmasked as a disguised death because it has brought illness, loneliness, and dysfunction. Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes confronts head-on the ubiquitous identity of the Strong Black Woman (SBW) in her new book, Too Heavy A Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.

Dr. Walker-Barnes’ work is a welcome addition to a growing group of contemporary books that tackle identity issues of black women, for example: “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America“, by Charisse Jones and Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf“, “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America“, by Melissa Harris-Perry, and Sophia Nelson’s “Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama.” “Too Heavy a Yoke” is more in the tradition of Harris-Perry’s treatment of the subject: academic in tone and heavily intellectualized. It is not targeted to the mass market women’s audience, but rather is intended “primarily for pastoral theologians, pastoral caregivers (including pastors, pastoral counselors, and women’s ministry leaders), and Christian mental health professionals whose ministry and services encompass Black women.”[i] Readers outside those categories should be prepared to push through the didactic approach but will be aided in their understanding by the author’s personal transparency and patient delivery.

The book’s readability is also helped along by a logical structure and flow that makes it easy to follow the author’s discourse and to connect the dots from one thesis to the next. Her topical subjects go from a detailed and illuminating profile of the Strong Black Woman (Chapter 1), to naming and critiquing the historical and contemporary cultural forces that shaped and necessitated the identity (Chapter 3), to honing in on the unique role the black church has played in reinforcing the Strong Black Woman identity (Chapter 5), and finally to laying out her model of healing and recovery. Also, the “Purpose and Organization of this Book” section in the Introduction is particularly helpful because she gives insight into why she chose womanist ideology as her framework. Explaining her approach is smart because many black readers in her intended audience, particularly black pastors, are not necessarily well-versed in womanism, and if they are familiar with it, are likely to disagree with its tenets and philosophical slant, particularly those not of the Millennial age group. Case in point: her quotation of Alice Walker’s definition of a womanist: “A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility…and women’s strength…”[ii]

The author’s profile of the Strong Black Woman is clear and compelling. She draws upon the already-established Jezebel and Mammy stereotypes parsed by Melissa Harris-Perry in Sister Citizen, and the Sisterella personality crafted by Jones and Shorter-Gooden in Shifting, as well as other scholars’ descriptors, for her three-part characterization of the Strong Black Woman identity: 1) excessive caregiving; 2)independence; and 3) emotional strength/regulation.[iii] Using examples of women she’s worked with in her professional practice, she highlights the common behaviors and attitudes that accompany each aspect of the SBW identity. In caregiving roles, these Strong Black Woman:

…took care of ailing family members and…generally were the first called whenever someone had a problem. At work and at church, they could be counted upon to take up the slack when someone else failed to live up to their responsibilities. Often, in fact, they foresaw the probability that the other person would fall short and they stepped up to the plate long before they were asked. …They rarely said no to anyone. …Whenever they felt the weight of responsibility bearing upon them, they ignored it, believing sincerely that God would continue to empower them to serve.[iv]

Walker-Barnes uses analysis of three hip-hop and R&B songs as the backdrop for her discussion of independence, which, she asserts, is basically about self-reliance. Looking to herself for financial provision, the SBW doesn’t need—in fact often eschews—the help of anyone, particularly men. Her comportment labels her as someone with an “internal sense of power and authority.” with a ‘boss’ mindset and who apparently carries this off with mystique-like ease.[v] The author perhaps sees the emotional strength aspect of the identity most destructive. Strong Black Women reflexively repress emotions, sometimes even the ‘positive’ ones. Fear of affirming others’ perceptions of angry black women, she strives for emotional equilibrium, or more precisely, the appearance of it. The author convincingly demonstrates the links of this false emotional strength to ongoing declines in the physical and mental health of today’s black women, urging attention from both the social science and ecclesiastical community and black women themselves.

A hallmark of the true value of “Too Heavy a Yoke” is the final chapter in which the author lays out her model of recovery and healing for the Strong Black Woman. She utilizes a twelve-step framework similar to addiction recovery programs, which makes sense given that she views adherence to the SBW personality as an addiction, a “force of habit ingrained in many African-American women from childhood.”[vi] Any woman who reads this book and can see herself in the attributes of the Strong Black Woman will not be untouched by reading the twelve steps for recovery. A woman who sees herself in the pages of this book will be forced to confront her profound need for Jesus’ intervention in her life, and her utter dependence on that intervention to abandon the strictures of this artificial identity. We all need to lay this burden down, and “Too Heavy a Yoke” can be a powerful catalyst to move us in that direction.

Writer’s note: The themes and ideas put forth in this book will be explored in more detail in subsequent articles in this series

[i] Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, (Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014), 8

[ii] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, p. 9 (quoting Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens)

[iii] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, p. 10

[iv] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, pp. 16-17

[v] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, pp. 29-31

[vi] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, p. 186

Black Christian Women Now: Political Engagement

Black Christian Women Now: Political Engagement

These are exciting yet tumultuous times politically, in no small measure because of the vibrant and insistent involvement of black women. We see history being made by The “Georgia Five,” the record-breaking group of black women vying to fill statewide office posts as lieutenant governor, secretary of state, insurance commissioner, state schools superintendent, and labor commissioner. Political advocacy groups run by and focusing on black women are hotly contesting voting rights attacks in states as politically disparate as North Carolina and Wisconsin. Even young black women are finding their voice through advocacy groups like Million Hoodies (@MillionHoodies) and Black Youth Project (@BlackYouthProj), both of which have taken leadership roles in the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown tragedies. To fully understand this dynamic, one has to go back two election cycles.

The Pew Research Center declared the 2008 election the most “racially and ethnically diverse in U.S. history.” Blacks represented 12.1% of all voters who cast a ballot, and had a 65.2% voter turnout rate (less than one percentage point behind the white voter turnout rate) which measures the percentage of all eligible black voters who actually voted. While impressive, some discounted the importance of these statistics, reasoning that we should expect black voters to run to the polls to support “their” black candidate. But there was more: at 68.8%, black women led all demographic groups with the highest voter turnout rate among eligible black female voters—for the first time ever. People seemed stunned at this turn of events. Groupthink and black politics aside, no one really expected this result from the most-overlooked, least-consulted voting bloc in our country. Black women walked neighborhoods, called friends and family, handed out leaflets, donated $5.00 at a time each payday, both informally though social and personal networks, and formally as part of local campaign offices. Obama infused hope in hearts and homes where it had been scarce for too long.

By the time the 2012 election came, support and naïve enthusiasm might have faded somewhat but again black women were the darlings of election night. This time around, the results were even more decisive. Blacks had the highest percentage of votes cast for Obama—93%, and of black women who voted, 96% voted for Obama. David C. Wilson, political science professor at University of Delaware, concludes, “These very basic points call into question what the 2012 election was really about: Was it about the economy, or was it really about the “type” of leadership desired by a new coalition of American voters largely consisting of progressive but not necessarily ‘liberal’ thinking and acting racial minorities?” “Progressive but not necessarily ‘liberal’ thinking and acting” aptly describes where black Christian women (BCW) often find themselves, making a variation of Professor Wilson’s question a good one to ponder: What are politics and elections really about for us? Are they about giving white America political comeuppance for the inexcusable way blacks and other minorities are treated in this country? Are they a way to push to the forefront our concerns about domestic violence, racial disparities in health and criminal justice, adequate and affordable housing and daycare, and living wages? Can they, and should they be a means of witnessing to the world around us the truth of the gospel and its relevance to life’s challenges and oppressions?

As black women continue to rise in political influence, BCW are increasingly forced to consider questions like these, culminating in one even more difficult: How do we politically engage in a biblically faithful way when neither Democrats nor Republicans, neither white evangelicals nor the weakened “Christian right” completely reflect all of our values and beliefs? Black women might seem the next best hope, but troublesome, too is the ascendance of black women who label themselves as political progressives but who act and think in line with traditional liberal platforms and positions. The problem is not in supporting issues that relate to the black part of us. Not many black women would argue against fair housing, equal pay for equal work, equality under the law in the justice system, or voting rights for all. The conundrum comes when we consider issues like marriage equality, sexuality and contraception, abortion, and others typically categorized more as theological rather than political.

BCW acknowledge the responsibility to maintain a faithful Christian witness across the full spectrum of political policies and issues but too often it seems easier said than done. For those who desire to find a more fully integrated political sweet spot, a few things might help ease the psychological and spiritual dissonance that comes from trying to honor all parts of the BCW identity—female, black, and Christian.

First, decide that non-involvement is not the answer. Sometimes concern defaults to avoidance because engagement focuses on the areas of common ground between BCW and those seeking their support. This approach often results in silence on vital social and cultural problems. Especially on the tough issues, BCW cannot be silent. The BCW voice and viewpoint need to be part of the political discourse in homes, churches, city halls, and on the national stage.

Second, carefully investigate the policy positions and agendas of prominent advocacy groups led by black women and others. Get familiar with language and lingo. For example, marriage equality and reproductive justice/reproductive health are common phrases used in support of same-sex unions and abortion. For example, Higher Heights for America and Black Women’s Roundtable are two highly visible and active groups. They both support positions that are not problematic, and some that are. Higher Heights describes its mission as investing “in a long-term strategy to expand and support Black women’s leadership pipeline at all levels and strengthen their civic participation beyond just election day.” This mission is supported by its #BlackWomenLead, #BlackWomenVote, and #SundayBrunch initiatives, all focused on increased and informed voting by black women. But curiously, it also issued a report, “Black Women’s Response to the War on Women”, in which support is evidenced for abortion. Another black woman-led group, Black Women’s Roundtable, a program of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, “is viewed as being among the most powerful coalition of African-American women in the country, mainly because of the clout held by its membership”. In 2013, its president Melanie Campbell participated in high-level fiscal cliff discussions at the White House, and Campbell was also present at a February 2014 meeting in which civil rights leaders presented a document outlining the black community’s agenda for jobs and freedom. In March of this year, the Roundtable issued a groundbreaking report, “2014 State of Black Women” in which it lists as a policy agenda item: “End war on women in the states including reproductive justice and women’s right to control their own bodies.”

Third, focus more on local political involvement. National groups strive to appeal to the broadest constituency possible, which often results in policy positions that most BCW do not support. But what can’t be supported nationally can be impacted locally. Research opportunities in the community– whether through churches, sororities, or other community-based organizations—to engage with those issues that require biblical fidelity and can better reflect the obligation to do justice in all areas of our political participation.

Just as “all politics are local,” all issues have a root or some relation to one’s lived theology, and black Christian women must step in to the gap between progressive and liberal politics.

Black Christian Women Now: Where Do We Stand?

Black Christian Women Now: Where Do We Stand?

Part 1: Introduction to Series: Taking Stock and Measuring Up

It’s not black history month or Martin Luther King, Jr. day, but that’s the thing about truth and wisdom, they endure beyond designated holidays or observances. In 1963, Dr. King wrote these words:

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

This statement is from the chapter, On Being a Good Neighbor, in King’s book, “Strength to Love,” a collection of sermons, essays, and other meditative reflections. It is part of a Socratic sequence in which he presses black Christians to release their concerns for comfort, safety, reputation, and status, and venture into the often-tumultuous waters of the fight for change and justice. Black Christian women face the same choice: Will we allow our communities to further deteriorate because we are hesitant or flat out unwilling to speak Truth to color—starting with ourselves? Our measure lies in what we do now that we are faced with a doubled-down barrage of challenge and controversy.

Black citizens are being brutalized and killed with impunity by fellow citizens and by those sworn to protect and serve. Teachers and school administrators are railroading black children into a corrupt and unjust justice system through disciplinary policies that target them. Black health is compromised by disparate access, diagnosis, and treatment. Black women are beaten and killed by those with whom they bear children, share meals and share beds. As caretakers and guardians of our families, we are weakened by unhealthy load-bearing that renders us prime candidates for depression and other mental or emotional problems.

Faced with this stark cultural landscape, it is incumbent upon black women to assess our situation and see where we stand. For black Christian women, this assessment must include an examination of our faith against biblical truth and standards; for we surely cannot and will not stand successfully in challenge if our foundation is weakened by beliefs and behaviors that do not reflect biblical fidelity. Consequently we won’t be prepared to be ambassadors who bring health, hope, and transformation in policy, education, family, criminal justice, or other arenas of society. This series attempts to make these assessments and offers suggestions for a path ahead.

One exploration of where we stand has already been undertaken. In March of this year, the Black Women’s Roundtable—the “civic engagement network” of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation—released a special report, “Black Women in the United States, 2014: Progress and Challenges.” The report evaluates the state of black women by highlighting data on health, education, workforce participation, economic standing, political engagement, and exposure to violence. Notably the report reflects and confirms the two-steps-forward-one-step-back dynamic in which we seem stuck, showing progress in some areas, inertia in others. High school diploma and college degree attainment are up but haven’t translated into better or higher-paying jobs. We have the highest level of workforce participation but still are concentrated in the lowest-paying, lowest-skilled employment tiers. Black women have had the highest rate of electoral participation in the last two elections but have not seen that loyalty rewarded with political attention or policy gains.

An evaluation that focuses on these types of socioeconomic indicators is not a bad place to start as we take stock of our lives. It points us to areas of outcome stagnation and policy resistance as we plan how to move forward, but it fails to address other critical measures of our wellbeing. The plan for this series is to fill in gaps left by this and similar reports by digging beneath the surface of the numbers and deconstructing our apparent spiritual dissonance: studies indicate we are probably the most devoutly religious of any demographic, but our lives don’t reflect the transformation and power typically associated with such devotion. I’ll examine the status of our media; families and other relationships; sex and sexuality, mental and emotional health and its connection to our physical health; and the intersection of our actual lived experiences and biblical constructs.

To get a sense of the context of this project, check out my Sisters and Citizens series:

Part 1: An Interview with Melissa Harris-Perry 

Part 2: An Open Letter to Black Christian Women 

Part 3: Called to Contend

Revolution, Among Other Things: A Conversation About Anger, White Privilege, and Cultural Honesty

Revolution, Among Other Things: A Conversation About Anger, White Privilege, and Cultural Honesty

In Part 1 of this series, I shared my thoughts and review of Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church, Edward Gilbreath’s newly-released book, described by him as an “extended reflection on Martin Luther King, Jr., Birmingham, and the church.”[1]

After reading Birmingham Revolution, I was eager to know more from Ed. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to talk with him about his book and questions it raises for all Americans as we press into the lingering obstacles we face to make our society a more just and reconciled one. I have known Ed for six years, so this interview held special meaning for me. Working closely with him during his tenure as the former founding editor of Urban Faith was a pleasure and privilege. He is now the Executive Director of Strategic Communication for The Evangelical Covenant Church denomination in Chicago. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics and issues. I spoke with Ed about several provocative issues implicated by his book. Anger, white power and privilege, cultural honesty and self-examination? Yes, we went there. While we spoke easily as two colleagues and now friends, we also approached our dialogue soberly, feeling the intensity of the times and the urgency of the task before us.

This excerpt from our discussion was edited for clarity and conversational flow.

Chandra White-Cummings: In the prologue you [talk] about [the] concept of ‘personal whiteness’ that W.E.B. DuBois described, the idea that whiteness can be owned as an asset and as a point of identity. You comment that as [whites] learned to exert that power to their advantage, things began to happen. Today, what are some ways they use power to their advantage?

Edward Gilbreath:  Today and I think historically it’s a circumstantial thing that people of European descent began to recognize certain associations with their skin color and they began to make those connections. It’s more a [matter of] legacy….If you trace [it] back over time you could see that a lot of them benefitted, even the United States itself benefitted from the privileges that were ascribed to those of a particular race: whether it be ownership of slaves that did work [or] the economic development of slavery that led to the [building] of wealth for various families and institutions. So that legacy continues in ways that many people don’t even realize. People [today] weren’t around for that and you can’t blame them. They weren’t personally responsible for certain things but they’re still benefitting from them and have the privilege.

So, how do we see it exerted today? I don’t think it’s necessarily intentional; I think it’s just people living into a legacy, a heritage of privilege. The trick today is being able to step outside of that and to make the connections between how I am enjoying the position I’m in today and how that’s related to history and things that happened in the past. This doesn’t make people guilty of anything but it does mean maybe I need to be more responsible and hold myself in some way accountable for how I use the privilege I have. And as a Christian then what does that mean for me? What’s the responsible use of that privilege and that power? I don’t want to accuse anyone or point fingers and say [anyone] is being racist and is exerting white privilege, but I would think that all of us in different ways could step back and practice the role of a historian to make connections between what we have today and what it took for that to happen.  And that’s not just white people, that’s also African Americans.

CWC: [In Chapter 4 you mention] conversations you’ve had with Randy Woodley (a Keetoowah Cherokee pastor, teacher, and activist) about the “spirituality of risk and doing.” I was captivated by that phrase…because there are two aspects to it: there’s risk but there’s also specific things that need to get done. It also shows that there is a spiritual component to taking risks; it’s not just about suffering social or political consequences. What risks do you think black Christians need to take [in the areas of racial justice and reconciliation]?

EG: Wow that’s a really good question. One thing that comes to mind is when you see someone like Bill Cosby who, over the years, has earned the right to speak his mind… But when you see him make a statement about the need for African Americans to be a little more self-critical and to take more personal responsibility, and challenging us on some of the things that may be detrimental to our uplift, a lot of folks turn on him because he would dare “blame” black people for their problems… I’m speaking generally here, but [it seems] we don’t want to put our dirty laundry on display and criticize some of the things we’re doing that are hurting [us]. So we need to be more honest with ourselves.

… [W]e should all equally be on the hook for the areas that God has given us to be accountable for. But I think there’s a mindset that will keep black folks stuck or paralyzed in an “us vs them” racism mentality [rather than] what does it look like if we decide to be purveyors of grace, being able to step aside and recognize some of the blind spots that some folks in the white community and the white church have but not let that put us in a spot where we allow ourselves to use that against them.

… I don’t look at our history as being something that always condemns us to being victims but in some ways it empowers us to be more grace-filled, more empowered to love others with greater knowledge of the fallenness [of human beings]. I think there’s risk involved in that…really taking the gospel seriously and living that out. If we do that, sometimes it might look like we’re letting people off the hook, or we’re [not] properly demonstrate[ing] whatever righteous indignation we should be showing. You can have a burning call and desire for justice while still being faithful to the call of loving your neighbor. That’s the trick, balancing [the two]. The tendency is to go one way or the other, either operating mostly out of anger or in another direction but what does it look like to balance those things? To me, that’s the spiritual risk in many ways.

[Speaking of anger…]

CWC: I know you hope that by reading the book people will see King in a different way and not romanticize him so much, and that we would get a more comprehensive view of him as an integrated human being; not just the I-have-a-dream icon. …I never considered him to be angry yet you show that he did carry some anger. You identify as one source of his anger people’s failure to really listen to what he was saying. I wonder a couple things. First, what do you think [black Christians] should do with our anger? Second, do you think the source of our anger today is the same reason [for King’s] anger back then?

EG: Dr. King was all about a redemptive approach and a constructive anger. Even as we’re being driven by a righteous indignation in pursuit of true justice, [we shouldn’t] allow that indignation or anger to become an end in itself, which I think sometimes happens today. Are we allowing it to drive us to build relationships or bridges with those who might traditionally be considered our opponents? [Are we] finding ways to humanize [them]…? [A]re we working in the community, volunteering to serve, doing things that may be of benefit? [T]he anger should drive us to get involved, to make a difference. We can be involved to build relationships, to reverse that anger, to drive us to something greater and redemptive.

For [many] I think anger today comes from a place of hopelessness and despair that is satisfied dwelling within that anger. Dr. King’s anger propelled him to move forward, but for some I think it’s become a pastime or a hobby just to dwell on the ways that racism exists today. For [people like that], they’re satisfied with being angry and leaving it there. But for Dr. King [the focus] wasn’t just pointing at racism, but [being] challenged to move forward. Whether it’s reaching across the racial divide or putting ourselves on the line to demand change in a specific arena. So it wasn’t just about being mad at the system, but it was about changing that system and about doing it in a redemptive way: by loving your neighbor through nonviolent means. There’s a role for being angry but it needs to drive us to something redemptive, and I’m not sure that’s [always] the case.

CW: I believe the Christian community hasn’t clearly articulated what we think reconciliation should look like among [Christians of different ethnicities]. It doesn’t seem that we’ve identified it in actionable or measurable terms. Dr. King and his colleagues had readily identifiable issues they were dealing with: discrimination in public accommodations, discrimination in housing, voting rights, etc. Do you think we have a clearly expressed vision of what reconciliation looks like?

EG: For the purposes of this book, I was thinking of it in terms of Dr. King’s beloved community. The beloved community described a society defined by justice, peace, and harmony that came through nonviolent means. There’s a sense that the pursuit of the beloved community—racial reconciliation in modern terms—is an ongoing activity. Part of the problem we’ve had over the last twenty years or so is that we’ve set out to pursue it as if there’s [an] end point [and once] we reach it, we’re done. [W]hat defines it is how we interact with our brothers and our sisters within church and within society. [Do we] see each other as real people and not as props for a particular ideology or political perspective or the stereotypes we associate with race? Are we able to move past [what] the world tells us we should believe about each other and see each other as people created in the image of God? We have to wrestle with getting along with our fellow man. The commitment is to loving the person beyond the labels and beyond [what’s] attached to them by the world. That’s work. There won’t always be agreement but yet the underlying commitment is to unity and to reconciliation. It’s always going to be hard; it’s always going to be a struggle. Are [we] ready to wrestle…to do what it takes to love our brother and sister, [to move] beyond the issues of race, culture, and politics? Are [we] ready to sign up for that?

Ed’s right; it’s time to live the gospel in an authentic and transformative way. In the prophetic tradition of Dr. King, he calls us to shed the shackles of cultural conformity and become bold extremists for justice and love.



[1] Edward Gilbreath, Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church, (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2013), 167

Revolution Revisited: A Review of Ed Gilbreath’s “Birmingham Revolution”

Revolution Revisited: A Review of Ed Gilbreath’s “Birmingham Revolution”

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[1]” 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[2]:

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”[3], 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.

 


[1] Edward Gilbreath, Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church, (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2013), 93

[2] Gilbreath, Birmingham Revolution, 113.

[3] Gilbreath, Birmingham Revolution, 33-40