Penn gathering will commemorate King's `Letter From Birmingham Jail'

Bound for Birmingham Jail on Good Friday 1963 are (from left) the Revs. Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Bound for Birmingham Jail on Good Friday 1963 are (from left) the Revs. Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and Martin Luther King Jr. (Birmingham, Ala., Public Library Archives)
Posted: April 24, 2013

When the jailed leader of the civil rights era scribbled the first words of what would become a literary touchstone for writings on oppression and protest, Drexel Hill's Jonathan Rieder was forging a suburban kid's path to activism.

The student member of the NAACP ditched science class at Friends' Central School in Wynnewood to attend a demonstration. He rose to his feet at Quaker meeting to talk about the turmoil in the South.

Decades later, Rieder wrote a book about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his famed "Letter From Birmingham Jail," revealing an indignant and angry leader impatient for change.

"The loving dreamer that society wanted to concentrate on and remember was such a simplification," said Rieder, 65, a sociology professor at Barnard College in New York.

Rieder will talk about the civil rights leader who was as much "steeped in black pride and solidarity" as "universal love for mankind" on Wednesday at a 50th anniversary commemoration of the letter at the University of Pennsylvania.

The event, cosponsored by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and Penn's Annenberg School for Communication, will feature speakers including the Rev. James Allen of Vine Memorial Baptist Church in West Philadelphia, who will discuss his meetings with King.

Wednesday's event, which will also commemorate the Birmingham protests that brought King to Alabama, could be considered an extension of the long relationship between the AFSC and King.

The Quaker organization, which is headquartered in Philadelphia, organized King's trip to India in 1959; was the first to publish "Letter From Birmingham Jail," in a 1963 pamphlet; and later nominated King for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he won in 1964.

"Dr. King's call to work against injustice has deeply resonated with AFSC since the 1950s," Joyce Miller, the AFSC's former assistant general secretary for justice and human rights, said in a statement. Miller, who will speak at Wednesday's event, called King's words an "urgent call to conscience and action" that are still important today.

The King whom Rieder uncovered in his research for Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter From Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation was an unsanitized version of the civil rights leader, who took umbrage at an open letter from a group of moderate white religious leaders.

The clergy members urged King to stop protesting in Birmingham, where he had gone for a series of marches and sit-ins in April 1963.

King was arrested on Good Friday that year for violating a judge's order prohibiting demonstrations. The clergy members' letter, published in a newspaper, urged King to negotiate and not protest, and to proceed slowly. The publication was smuggled in to a disheartened King, who began scribbling his response in the margins of a newspaper.

"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed," King wrote on April 16. "For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' "

For King, negotiating was futile when the other side refused to do so in good faith.

"You can hear the anger," Rieder said. King takes others to task when he says they "will have to repent for the appalling silence of good people, not just the brutality of evil people," Rieder said.

Still, King manages to retain a tone of goodwill. He was released April 20, and less than two weeks later, Bull Connor, Birmingham's commissioner of public safety, ordered the use of fire hoses and attack dogs against protesters. The dissemination of those images became a "transformative moment" for this country, Rieder said.

The letter was published in early May by the AFSC and later by magazines and newspapers, but it did not have an immediate impact. As King's reputation soared, so did the letter's significance.

But for all its eventual fame, the letter apparently was never answered - until this month.

Christian Churches Together, a coalition representing 43 denominations, released a 20-page response to the letter and presented it to King's daughter the Rev. Bernice King at a ceremony in Birmingham.

The group pledged to tackle issues including inadequate city schools and the high incarceration rate of young black men, which will be the topic of the group's annual meeting next year.

"Too often churches have fallen into the category of sympathizers who sit on the sidelines," said Ron Sider, a professor at Palmer Theological Seminary in King of Prussia who chaired the committee that drafted the response. "We resolve by this letter not to be part of that quiet silent majority."

Contact Kristin E. Holmes

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