The powerful message of King's "Letter"Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is generally regarded as the preeminent piece of writing from the civil rights movement. Forceful, scholarly, persuasive, the letter rallied supporters behind King's cause and staked his claim to a moral high ground above those who urged a more cautious solution to racial discrimination. Now, for the first time comes a comprehensive examination of King's famous letter in Blessed Are the Peacemakers. Author and historian S. Jonathan Bass presents a well-researched account of how the letter was created and examines in compelling fashion how it affected the lives of those it touched.
Defying a court injunction against marching, King and his followers were arrested in April 1963 by Bull Connor's Birmingham police force and confined to the city jail. There, in a dark and isolated cell, King began scribbling in the margins of a newspaper his eloquent response to eight white ministers who had criticized his demonstrations and called for a more gradual approach toward solving the South's racial dilemma. When King's letter was made public, many of the ministers to whom it was addressed endured personal agony. Vilified in the national media, they received hate mail and criticism from both sides civil rights advocates in the North, as well as segregationists in their own congregations. In this balanced portrayal, based on personal interviews with many of the participants, Bass describes how the turmoil took its toll two of the pastors left their churches (and the city of Birmingham), soon after, while others remained bitter and puzzled by their inclusion in this troubling piece of the nation's history. Bass' book is a worthy addition to the history of the civil rights movement and a vivid reminder of the passions and conflicts it aroused.