When Martin Luther King Jr. was put in the Birmingham jail on Good Friday, April 14, there was not much to encourage him. Even Bull Connor, acting with some restraint up until this time, had not behaved in a way that would put the event in the news.
Then, in the darkness of the jail cell, a newspaper was brought to King, and he saw the appeal of the eight clergy asking local blacks to withdraw support from the campaign. This appeal triggered such deep reserves of energy and commitment that, rather than be disheartened by results in Birmingham, King swung into high gear and wrote “The Letter from Birmingham Jail,” taking the campaign to the nation and even to the world. No longer was it a campaign just for Birmingham. It was now much larger. He had been urged to speak to the nation from the Albany jail, but events didn’t lead to such a massive message in that situation.
Energized by his emotional response to the statement of the eight and to the others who were asking him to “wait,” on April 16 King began writing the most important document of the civil rights movement that would propel things forward quickly to the March on Washington and beyond.
As a result, Birmingham would suffer more bombings and deaths, and it would take many years for Birmingham to erase a crippling image, but the pain in Birmingham would bring enormous good to the nation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had been 100 years in coming to a nation largely satisfied with segregation.
But what of the eight clergy whose request to wait a little longer had been the launching pad for this powerful “Letter from Birmingham Jail”?
I know a good bit about these men because one of them, Episcopal Bishop C.C.J. Carpenter, was my father. Because they alone were named in the letter that was also directed at President Kennedy, Billy Graham, some of the black leaders in Birmingham and perhaps a majority of American citizens, they came to be seen as caricatures of inept, bigoted white preachers.
Let me make it clear that I believe everything was somehow working for the good of the nation: the April 12 appeal, “The Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the later violence of Bull Connor, the jailing of the children, and even the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. (I tremble as I write that.) It took all that, at great sacrifice of Birmingham, to propel this country out of a continual acceptance of segregation and cruelty to our black citizens.
So, I don’t want ever to say anything that detracts from the blessings that came from the letter and of King himself and of Fred Shuttlesworth and other great leaders of the “movement” or from the suffering in Birmingham.
But I would like for you to know that the eight clergy were not paper-thin caricatures worthy of perpetual scorn. My father was even chosen to be chairman of the 24-member integrated “Group Relations Committee” that resulted from the accord in May 1963 between Birmingham businessmen and the civil rights leaders. Many integrated meetings were held in his office, considered “a safe place” before, during and after the Birmingham campaign.
So please understand why I have published a biography of my dad, which is the only biography of any of the eight. And understand why Steve Grafman is working on a biography of his dad. Rabbi Milton Grafman probably got more hateful mail from northern liberals because of being addressed by the letter than any of the eight since he continued to live in Birmingham for another three decades.
Douglas M. Carpenter, an Episcopal parish priest for 45 years in Alabama and Virginia, is now retired and living in Birmingham. The following is adapted from a section of Carpenter’s book, A Powerful Blessing: The Life of Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter, Sr., which is available at: http://www.episcobooks.com.