Book explores spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from Birmingham Jail

“Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail and the Struggle that Changed America” by Jonathan Rieder (Bloomsbury Press, 224 pages, $25)

The explosion drew a vengeful crowd to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s shattered Birmingham home, and smoke still curled into the night sky as King begged the surging crowd to love his attackers.

Years later, he would forgive a deranged woman who plunged a knife into his chest during a New York book signing.

Since the blade’s point stopped just short of his aorta, he said in his famous “Mountaintop Speech” delivered the night before he died, had he merely sneezed, he might have succumbed to the attack.

But in his historic letter from Birmingham Jail, which marked its 50th anniversary recently, King seethed not about violent attackers, but about the passivity of white moderates urging racial gradualism.

King’s frustration, says Jonathan Rieder in his new book, “Gospel of Freedom,” fueled the letter but also portends King’s later controversial stands against poverty and militarism.

King says in the letter: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.”

King mocked self-styled moderate members of the clergy as just “moderate segregationists,” wondering why they criticized him but said nothing to the community about loving their black neighbors.

“Shallow understanding from people of good will,” King said, “is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

But the book opens another fascinating dimension, grinding an interesting historical lens through which to view King’s later speeches and writings.

King’s outrage toward the clergy in the letter, Rieder said, forecast his later societal critique.

Rieder argues that those moderate clergy members came to embody much of American society: the people unmoved by great suffering, the people unwilling to leave the safe orbit of their lives to help.

Rieder says an edgier King develops under the letter’s microscope.

Rieder is on to something.

Those germinating ideas were in full bloom in King’s defiant anti-war speech “Time to Break Silence” at Riverside Church in New York, in which he asked why a nation would put profit ahead of people.

Similar themes emerged in King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, delivered two months before his death: “God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world.”

During a recent appearance on PBS, Rieder said even King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech exudes more fire through the letter’s prism.

People have reduced King’s letter to a treatise on civil disobedience, Rieder said in the interview, but it may represent King’s most important beliefs about race and our culture.

Many have argued King evolved, but I don’t recall anyone, as Rieder has, connecting King’s letter to later work that may have cost King his life. King moved from desegregating buses in Montgomery, Ala., to fighting for wealth redistribution and the defeat of global racism, militarism and poverty.

King designed the marches, the boycotts and the speeches to raise awareness, but even when people saw and heard, it seems too few of them cared enough to act.

Rieder explains how the weeks leading to the writing of the letter saw King increasingly depressed about his Birmingham campaign. Roughly 5 percent of the city’s black churches supported him. The white establishment didn’t exactly embrace him. Initial response to the letter also was muted.

But the referenced moderate clergy embodied the corrosive passivity he saw in American culture when it came to racism. The silence and inaction of friends appalled him more than enemy attacks.

Historians have wondered why King insisted on traveling to Memphis in April 1968 to stand with sanitation workers fighting for a fair wage.

If Rieder’s interpretation is any indication, King simply couldn’t stand idly by and watch.