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

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: A Man with a Purpose, a Dream, and Influence

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: A Man with a Purpose, a Dream, and Influence

“Washington DC, USA-August 24, 2013: Messages are posted on a board in remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the 50th anniversary of the civll rights march on Washington DC. The original civil rights march took place on August 28, 1963. These messages are at the King Center Imaging Project at a park near the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington DC.”

No historical figure has shaped my leadership and passion for ministry like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Growing up in South Carolina, I was exposed to the hardships of the Civil Rights Movement at an early age. I recall my parents taking us to the King Center in Atlanta to watch Dr. King passionately deliver speeches and to trace our African American history in pictures. As a college student and for several years after, I visited the King Center annually and it became a pilgrimage of sorts, reminding me of what the Lord has done for us collectively as black people in America. Visiting the King Center also provided assurance that as sure as God has sealed my past, he most certainly will sustain my future if I continue to abide in Him alone.

Dr. King abided in Christ and he was a dreamer. This year marks the fifty-year anniversary of his Letter from Birmingham Jail, but it also marks the 50-year anniversary of his famous I Have a Dream speech. In the book A Call to Conscience, Dr. Dorothy Height provides an introduction to the speech. She wrote, “Dr. King departed from his notes. He spoke from his heart.” His heart was filled with a God-sized dream that reached across social, economic and racial, ethnic lines to offer a vision and hope that we can be better together. His heart was filled with a dream of reconciliation and justice.

As a seminary student, the expansive reach of Dr. King’s ministry and messages often intrigues me. There are numerous books written by people, both Christian and non-Christian, all across the world that share the convictions and quote the wise words of Dr. King. Whenever they reference him, I am reminded that they have heard and been deeply impacted by the voice of an African-American man. I am also reminded of his faithfulness and the cost Dr. King paid for the influence of his leadership. Walking in a divine purpose, pursuing a dream, and having influence always costs us something, but the benefit of the costs is that our obedience directly impacts the lives of others.

I smiled when I read that President Barack Obama would use Dr. Martin Luther King’s bible to take his oath of office in the upcoming inauguration. Considering African American history, this feels like a full circle moment. I’m certain Dr. King’s dream inspired the vision, hope, and presidency of Barack Obama. That’s why my husband and I honored the historic inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States by celebrating African-American men. We invited young men to a social to hear the wise words of respectable African-American men who were husbands, fathers, hard workers, leaders, mentors, tutors, and servants. We invited them to dream.

When I consider the plight of young black boys, it saddens me that in many ways, we are still living in an “America [that gives] the Negro people [especially African American boys and men] a bad check, a check which is marked ‘insufficient funds.’” I reject the idea that there are insufficient funds for these precious young people. I, like, Dr. King, have “the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, other-centered men can build up.”

The truth is: the “hope” and “change” we all need are not found in President Barack Obama or any political party, government system, or human structure. I am praying for God to raise up other-centered men – Dr. Tony Evans would call them kingdom-minded men – who know their purpose, pursue their dreams, and do not take lightly their influence. In a culture that only values black boys for their physical stamina, the way they carry a ball, or recite song lyrics, I am praying for young black boys to rise in the same spirit that fueled Dr. King. I pray that they will dream again and dream big.

The Power of a Praying King

The Power of a Praying King

In his excellent new book, Never To Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr.(Fortress Press), Vanderbilt University religion professor Lewis V. Baldwin examines an undervalued aspect of the civil rights movement’s effectiveness. With vivid stories and a scholar’s eye for the telling detail, Baldwin brings to the forefront the centrality of this vital spiritual discipline in both King’s public ministry and his personal devotion. Baldwin’s tome is a worthy and necessary addition to the annals of MLK scholarship. The following is an excerpt from the book.
Prayer helped Martin Luther King Jr. to discover the activity of God not only in his own daily life and activities but also in the needs of humanity and in the challenges of the world. He saw the many movements for freedom in his time as outpourings of God’s spirit on the nation and the world, and prayer went hand in hand with his spirited call to resist systemic, social evil in all forms. This view of prayer’s connection to God’s work in the world, perhaps more than anything else, reflected King’s vital and distinctive blend of spirituality and social vision as well as his keen sense of the tremendous value and creative potential of prayer. It also explains why King made prayer central to the struggle for civil and human rights.

As far as King was concerned, he was involved in essentially “a spiritual movement” and not simply a struggle for equal rights, social justice, and peace; this invariably meant that prayer and praying, much like the spiritual discipline of nonviolence, had to be for him a daily activity and a total way of life. Otherwise, the quest to redeem and transform the moral and political spirit of the nation and of humanity as a whole would ultimately prove futile and perhaps even counterproductive.

King’s encounters with crisis after crisis in his protest against the personal and institutional racism of white America reinforced his conception of prayer as lived experience and as part of engaged spirituality developed in the midst of conflict and action. It is often said that the movement began with a song, but in King’s case it actually began with a prayer.

Visions and Victories

The date was December 5, 1955; the scene was King’s private study in his home at 309 South Jackson Street in Montgomery; and the challenge was a speech that he, as the newly-elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organization formed to lead the bus boycott, had to hastily prepare for the very first mass meeting held at the Holt Street Baptist Church in connection with the bus boycott. Having only fifteen minutes to prepare what he called “the most decisive speech of my life,” King, “obsessed by” feelings of “inadequacy” and in “a state of anxiety,” turned to that “power whose matchless strength stands over against the frailties and inadequacies of human nature.” King prayed for God’s guidance in delivering a speech that would be “militant enough” to arouse black people to “positive action” and “moderate enough” to keep their fervor “within controllable and Christian bounds.”

The speech, which called boycotters to courageous protest grounded in Christian love and democratic values, evoked more applause than any speech or sermon King had given up to that point, thus reinforcing his belief that God had the power to “transform” human weakness into a “glorious opportunity.” This experience confirmed King’s faith in what his ancestors had long declared about the sheer discipline, immense potential, and enduring power of prayer; and it highlighted his sense of the significance of prayer as lived theology.

As the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and a leader in the bus boycott, King increasingly came to see that secret communication with God in his private study or “closet,” so to speak, was as important as praying publicly in his pulpit. Evidently, he had other private experiences during which prayer translated a paralyzing impotence into unshakable courage, frustrating uncertainty into incurable hope, and life’s hardships into amazing vitality and feelings of triumph. In January, 1956, as the fervor driving the Montgomery bus boycott reached fever pitch, King received a telephone call at midnight from a racist who called him a “nigger” and threatened to kill him and “blow up” his home.

Deeply disturbed and unable to sleep, King retreated to his kitchen for coffee, thinking that this could possibly provide some relief. Love for family and church, devotion to the struggle, and feelings of utter helplessness gripped him in that moment of deep restlessness, painful stillness, and desperate searching. Knowing that the theology he had studied in the corridors of academia could not help him and that he had nowhere else to turn, King had a face-to-face encounter with what he, in the tradition of his forebears, called “a Waymaker,” exposing his fears, insecurities, and vulnerabilities with sincerity and humility. Great comfort came as an “inner voice” spoke to King, reminding him that he was not alone, commanding him to “stand up” for righteousness, justice, and truth, and assuring him that “lo, I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”

This serendipitous experience further convinced King that hardship, frustration, and bewilderment are often the points at which one meets God through solitude and prayer, a notion clearly substantiated by the black experience in religion. In that moment of quiet brooding, commonly referred to as “the vision in the kitchen,” King found new life in prayer, was reminded that prayer indeed mattered, and began to believe anew in how the sovereign work of the Almighty was being manifested in both his own life and in the bus protest. Moreover, the experience deepened his sense of what it meant to follow Jesus Christ as a passionate disciple, and he came to see that prayer would be a vital dimension of that which enabled him sufficiently to carry out his work. In a general sense, the experience in the kitchen further equipped King to speak from experience and thus authoritatively about the saving power of prayer. The spiritual growth wrought by that experience would become increasingly essential in sustaining King’s commitment to nonviolent struggle and in determining the nature of his responses to crises in his life.

Public Acts of Prayer

Considering the social, economic, and political dynamics at work in the 1950s, King was always willing and eager to assume the role of public prayer leader. In fact, he felt that praying publicly was central to his calling as a national leader and especially to his role as the voice of spiritual people imbued with a messianic sense of vocation and mission. He saw that public prayer, like the singing of the spirituals and anthems of the movement, was a powerful aspect of the spirituality that bonded his people in the face of oppression and that gave them the will and determination to survive, struggle, and be free, even against seemingly invincible odds. Again and again, King received practical lessons in the unifying power of public prayer from ordinary church folk who were forced to drift in and out of the disturbed world of white racists, who were the embodiments of lived faith, who had literally built churches and kept families and neighborhoods together by “talking to de Lawd” and making painful sacrifices.

King’s role as public prayer leader extended into his activities as both a pastor and civil rights leader. Much like the worship experience at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the board meetings of the MIA always included prayers, songs, scripture readings, and speeches, all of which reflected a nonviolent tone, and King, as the organization’s chairman, often gave the opening or closing prayer. At times, MIA board members such as Willie F. Alford, Ralph W. Hilson, G. Franklin Lewis, and B.D. Lambert, all clergymen, were asked to offer the invocation and prayer as part of the benediction. King constantly highlighted the need to remain in a prayerful mood and considering the challenges his people faced daily, and he insisted that MIA decisions regarding the boycott be carefully “thought about” and “prayed over” before being implemented through practical action

King himself occasionally became quite emotional while praying at mass meetings, especially after protesters were attacked and homes and churches bombed by white bigots. “Discouraged” and “revolted by the bombing,” and feeling “a personal sense of guilt” for all these problems, King was on one occasion close to tears as he asked the audience to join him in prayer. While “asking God’s guidance and direction,” King was caught in “the grip of an emotion” he “could not control” and actually “broke down in public.” His prayer built an exuberant sung finale, with the audience crying out and rejoicing. “So intense was the reaction” that King could not finish his prayer. With the help of fellow ministers, who put their arms around him, King was slowly lowered to his seat.

Here was an occasion when the traditional prayer meeting served to solidify a despised and abused people around a common faith, hope, purpose, and strategy for change. Though caught in the web of guilt and emotion, King did not stand alone, for the sense of being both suffering community and divinely ordained instrument for much-needed social change proved overwhelming for all who participated.

The emotive qualities of the black church, which often exploded into handclapping and joyous shouts, and which King had frowned on as a boy, took on a new and more personal dimension for the civil rights leader. Prayer rose to sermon, tears gave way to rejoicing, and King’s calm manner surrendered to an infectious frenzy. Hence, King’s connection to the ecstatic side of the black prayer tradition and to the African American worship experience as a whole became amazingly real. Clearly, scholars must take this and other of King’s experiences concerning public prayer in the civil rights crusade more seriously if they are to bring a true sense of the richness and power of the black church experience to the daunting work of King interpretation.

Excerpted from Never To Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr. by Lewis V. Baldwin. Used by permission of Fortress Press.

Faith and Politics at King Dedication

Faith and Politics at King Dedication

I haven’t yet read complaints that The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial dedication ceremony was a dangerous church/state hybrid, but surely those will come as the event felt, to some, like a mix between a church service and a political rally, with thousands in attendance and multitudes more (myself included) watching on TV. &

Worship in Action

“With all the smiling and handshaking going on, you would swear you were at church, welcoming the visitors after the morning’s announcements. But if you closed your eyes and listened, you would think you’d landed at a campaign event,” wrote Kenrya Rankin at Loop21. “We might have been there to honor the legacy of a black leader of days gone by, but the legacy of the black leader of today loomed large.”

Likewise, Religion News Service’s Adelle M. Banks said the event blended worship and a call to action. “Held during the traditional Sunday morning worship time, the ceremony featured choirs, gospel artists Mary Mary, and Aretha Franklin singing one of King’s favorite hymns, ‘Precious Lord,’” said Banks. “More than 200 churches contributed $1.8 million to the $120 million memorial, for which $117 million has been raised.”

Political and Partisan?

Dignitaries’ response to the ceremony “was enthusiastic but slightly reserved,” according to The Root’s Cynthia Gordy. But the reaction of those gathered on the National Mall was “more emotional,” she said. “During the president’s speech, which visitors could see on two jumbo screens flanking the stage, chants of ‘four more years’ erupted from the crowd.”

This was a problem for Christian Post reporter Napp Nazworth, who described the dedication speeches as “highly partisan” and noted that many connections were made between King’s legacy and the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement.

March to the Library Instead

In a slightly sardonic nod to the event and the OWS movement, Washington Post local columnist Courtland Milloy advised D.C. school children to overcome by marching to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library to devote themselves to academic excellence.

“Long after Occupy DC has decamped from the city and the protests over economic inequality have faded from memory, you’ll still have to occupy those classrooms and continue to struggle against educational inequity,” said Milloy.

More Complaints About Missing Words

Perhaps taking a cue from poet Maya Angelou, two men complained about missing words on the monument.

Your Black World coalition founder Dr. Boyce Watkins, who declared in advance of the ceremony that that he wouldn’t attend, yesterday criticized the memorial for failing to include the words racism and black.

“I am not surprised that in a nation where discussing racial inequality is politically costly, that this issue would be left off the table,” said Watkins. “If Dr. King had not been a Black man in America, he would never have become Dr. King.”

And, noting the faith that motivated both King and that the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, Director of the Christian Defense Coalition in Washington, D.C, issued a press release complaining that God is absent from the monument.

“Not to include any mention of ‘God’ in the quotes at the memorial is a betrayal of the life, legacy and teachings embraced and lived by Dr. King. I think he would have been stunned and disappointed to see this oversight.”

What do you think?

Did the dedication ceremony strike an appropriate “walk the talk” tone or was it an uncomfortable mix of church and state? Does the monument itself accurately reflect King’s legacy or is it hindered by its location on public land?

Stranded on MLK Blvd.

Stranded on MLK Blvd.

Street signs in downtown Atlanta, GA: Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. and Capitol Ave

Our nation’s political divisions, economic struggles, and violent communities should remind us that symbolism without substance is a dead-end street.

We focus too much on symbolism. For example, the debate over whether a mosque should be built near Ground Zero is largely about what the 9/11 tragedy symbolizes. What about focusing on the substance that led up to it and where do we go from here? The dueling rallies (the Rev. Al Sharpton vs. Glenn Beck) in Washington, on the day commemorating the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was mostly about what the civil rights movement symbolizes and who should proclaim the dream the Rev. Martin Luther King articulated. Meanwhile, unemployment is nearly 10 percent (double for blacks) and black incarceration rates are double and triple their percentage of the population in many states.

This past Sept. 11, I attended a dedication ceremony for yet another Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, this one in Newport News, Virginia. As I watched King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, at the podium, I thought of how our emphasis on MLK symbolism often overshadows the substance of his message; a message of peace and justice that is as relevant today as it was on Sept. 11, 2001, and Aug. 28, 1963.

Oddly, I thought of comedian Chris Rock.

Rock, in his 1996 HBO special, Bring the Pain, said:

Martin Luther King stood for nonviolence. Now what’s Martin Luther King? A street. And I don’t give a (bleep) where you live in America, if you’re on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there’s some violence going down.

There are more than 800 streets, drives and boulevards, often with large monuments on them, across the country and world that honor King. Many of them are in neighborhoods that are plagued by high unemployment, disenfranchisement, poverty, and crime. It’s ills in neighborhoods like this section of Newport News’ East End that King died trying to eradicate.
As Newport News Mayor McKinley Price remarked that the memorial would be more than a plaza but “embody a man who was about a movement,” I doubted that King, a man of God, would want to be honored with a structure made of stone. Didn’t he say in his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, two months before his assassination on April 4, 1968, not to idolize him?

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” he said. “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter …”

The people who have the power to erect monuments could best honor King by focusing those resources on substance — eradicating the ills he died for. For example, empower poor people with good-paying jobs, set and enforce policies that close the education gap, eliminate out-in-the-open illegal drug sales that make streets unsafe, and fix the root causes of why blacks are incarcerated at rates that are double and triple their percentage of the population. Surely the people most likely to sit in a King memorial plaza in the ‘hood would have a better chance of fulfilling his dream in their lives.

Bernice King, who was only 5 in 1968 when her father was assassinated, honored his legacy in a way I believe he would’ve loved. She barely mentioned his name.

She began with a poem that mentioned him and her mother, Coretta Scott King.
“I was born a King,” she recited. “I might as well be a king…”

She assigned the family name to the crowd, and urged them to live as royalty.

“To be strong communities, we must have the mentality of kings,” she said. “Kings raise the standard and lead the way. Kings don’t follow the crowd. Kings don’t hang out with subjects — folks who are ‘subject to negativity.’ Kings don’t wait for others to do something; they take responsibility.”

She challenged them to focus on healing their families, which leads to healthy communities.

“Get back to the dining table … Sit around the table with your family and dialogue about how to make communities better.”

She used the symbolic occasion to deliver substance.

As she was escorted to a car to catch her return flight to Atlanta, I walked with Bernice King and asked whether she felt, as Chris Rock implied, that monuments to her father might actually detract from focusing on fixing the problems he died for.

“As you know, monuments are about status and can become idols,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. We have to do both. Like the D.C. memorial [planned on the National Mall between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials], people — especially those who were not alive then — will come from all over and be inspired. But we have to inspire people to action, to make a difference. That’s what Daddy wanted and died for.”

Symbolism has its value, but substance is more important.