Southern Cultures 8.2 (2002) 110-112
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Blessed Are the Peacemakers
Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the "Letter from Birmingham Jail"
Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the "Letter from Birmingham Jail". By S. Jonathan Bass. Louisiana State University Press, 2001. 322 pp. Cloth, $39.95; paper, $17.95
One can hardly blame Martin Luther King Jr. for neglecting to mail his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" to the eight white clergymen to whom it was addressed. That year, 1963, was a busy one for the civil rights leader, especially after the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's (sclc) Birmingham campaign captured the nation's attention and garnered an unprecedented level of support for the Civil Rights movement. Most can remember that 1963 began in Alabama with Governor George Wallace's famous inaugural declaration "segregation now . . . segregation tomorrow. . . segregation forever. " Most can also recall what a tumultuous year 1963 became in Birmingham: two factions vying for control of City Hall amidst increased civil rights pressure in the spring, Wallace's calling in the National Guard to prevent the integration of the city's public schools, and four African American girls killed by the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in the fall. It seems odd, given that the story of Birmingham—and King's [End Page 110] prison epistle in particular—is so central to our understanding of the Civil Rights movement that we forget to wonder what became of these white clergymen and their ministries in its wake. S. Jonathan Bass insists that "history should remember them—not as misguided opponents of Martin Luther King, but as individuals with diverse ideas on the volatile segregation issue who struggled with social change the way all people do."
Recovering the stories of these eight white religious leaders, Blessed Are the Peacemakers skillfully weaves individual biographies into the religious and political history of the city, the state, and the region. What these men shared in 1963 was a commitment to gradual social transformation that would preserve the peace in a world increasingly rocked by violent racial turmoil. Concern for "law and order and common sense" led them to condemn as equally harmful the defiance of staunch segregationists and the direct action tactics of civil rights agitators. Bass argues that the two oldest, Nolan Harmon and Charles Carpenter, could not escape the racially paternalistic mindset of their generation. Unable to imagine a world without Jim Crow, they tried to serve as voices of moderation but failed to take substantive action. Four younger clergymen, Milton Grafman, Joseph A. Durick, George Murray, and Paul Hardin Jr., remained more receptive to change and translated their commitment to achieving racial progress into bolder stands for racial justice. Bass's portrait of Roman Catholic Bishop Durick's coming of age as a minister—choosing "Jesus over his love for jazz" and traveling from one rural hamlet to another in an ailing station wagon to proselytize—recaptures a lost era in southern religious culture and is among the most engaging. Two other ministers, Edward V. Ramage and Earl Stallings, attempted to embrace more progressive approaches to social change. Lacking institutional support and confronting pressure from segregationists within their congregations, they were forced to abandon their ministries in Alabama. Bass's sympathetic reevaluation of these clergymen caught standing on a rapidly shrinking middle ground offers readers a more holistic view of conditions that silenced even the most well-meaning whites.
The greatest strength of Blessed Are the Peacemakers is that it illuminates the complete history of King's iconic prison epistle. Bass unequivocally demonstrates that the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was first and foremost a press release. King addressed it to the eight white clergymen, but he envisioned them as rhetorical foils in his and sclc's attempt to orchestrate a morality play on the national stage. Underscoring the role of the national media in constructing civil rights narratives in the 1960s—reducing the struggle to good guys...