Book Review — Birmingham Revolution

The year 2013 brings us to significant moments in our nation’s history. Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address.

This week is a somber revisit to the assassination of JFK 50 years ago.

Birmingham Revolution by Edward Gilbreath reminds us of another significant movement 50 years ago. Martin Luther King, Jr., sat in a Birmingham jail and it was a critical moment for the civil rights movement.

King himself had been a far more modulating voice in the movement. His education and ability to connect in white circles were significant. But the issues of injustice in Birmingham were boiling over and there were significant steps being made to increase the non-violent protests. King was pastoring in Montgomery, Alabama, but Fred Shuttlesworth from Birmingham had persuaded King to come help with the civil rights movement.

White supremacists had also decided to “up their game” in stopping any sense of “uprising,” so they were meeting marches with violence. King ended up in jail over a march. Then, as he sat there, eight white pastors wrote a letter printed in the newspaper. They were “moderates” who supported the rights of blacks. They also wanted the rule of law to keep order, so they were appealing to King (without naming him) to stop the protest marches. Let the law take its course was their advice.

Gilbreath sees this moment as a critical turn in the approach King took toward getting the nation’s attention regarding the injustice of segregation. Gilbreath wants to take the reader from the somewhat placid view of King we have in our minds where he delivering the very powerful “I Have a Dream” speech to the jail cell where King’s underlying anger at the injustice of segregation finally brought him to better articulate why he sat in that jail cell and why those eight “moderate” clergy were wrong for calling him out like that.

The book is far too short for the depth of King’s reasoning that is uncovered. I truly hope Gilbreath explores more in the life of Dr. King and the civil rights movement. He gets to the prophetic voice King truly had, and ties it directly into King’s Christianity.

Gilbreath does not brush aside the “humanness” of Dr. King. There were the mistakes, the moral issues, all of it.

But King had a prophetic voice that was driven by his Christian worldview. Gilbreath wants us to hear that voice again.

“Unfortunately, King is known more today as a poetic patron saint of racial harmony than a provocative prophet of social justice, someone who by the end of his life had managed to get on just about everyone’s last nerve.” (p. 93)

Birmingham was a defining moment where King finally stated out loud that people can be an extremist, but it’s just what kind of extremist you choose to be that is vital. He decided to call out the white clergy and ask the hard questions. WHEN would be a good time to address these injustices?

If the white clergy were calling on the blacks to “obey the law” regarding protests, why were they not calling on the KKK and white supremacists in power to obey Brown v. Board of Education and allow blacks into southern educational institutions?

If they were going to label King an extremist for non-violent protests, he decided to own it. If he was an extremist, what about Jesus?

Gilbreath sees this moment as truly defining in King’s life. Where were the white Christians in this movement? Why weren’t all Christians on the side of justice?

It had been 100 years since Gettysburg, and approaching 100 since the 13th Amendment, yet blacks were still suffering injustice. Just when would be a good time to act?

Sitting in that jail writing that letter, King decided this was his time. And it needed to be everyone’s time.

I need more from Gilbreath. He touched around the edges of things that need to be said. As an African American evangelical, Gilbreath exposes things that are still not right in “Christian” America, especially “Christian” American evangelicalism.

I am ashamed that while I have broadened my thinking as a believer over the past two decades, I have not voiced that change in a more articulate way. I’ve tried to protect myself. But Gilbreath exposes in me my own narrow “evangelical” view.

While I have broadened out, my Christianity truly has been limited to “individual salvation, traditional marriage, and pro-life issues.”

Over the past year on this blog I’ve tried to articulate a more radical view I simply call “TRULY Pro-Life,” which takes me far beyond the issue of abortion. Yet, I’ve only dabbled in it.

Gilbreath exposes that weakness in me and I truly hope he writes more on these subjects. We need, as evangelicals, to get away from looking at someone as “too liberal” because they might vote Democrat or seem to support some political agenda that seems like “socialism.” Our Christianity just needs to be more mature. (I might add new “emergent” Christians need to do the exact same thing in the other direction.)

This book is a starter for being eye-opening. Gilbreath helps us see a less gentle King. There is more depth to the man we equate with one speech. Birmingham was a turning point in the development of this great man.

NOTE: I received this book from IVP Press for the purposes of a book review. I am under no obligation to give it a positive review.

4 thoughts on “Book Review — Birmingham Revolution

  1. Dan. Thank you for this honest critique. I didn’t know that King penned his speech while in Jail.

    In many ways my faith journey over recent years has been a difficult one where the Lord has moved me from the four walls of the church into being the church in our community. In my early years of knowing I was called to be a pastor, I always imagined myself leading from the front of a congregation.

    I thank God he has stripped me from it and has moved me deeply into being part of the community of the urban poor. And its within this community we are now discussing with the community what a church might mean and look like which has true significance for this community.

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