Jonathan Rieder is a professor of sociology at Barnard College and the author of “Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation.”
CHRIS ROCK caused a stir last Fourth of July when he tweeted, “Happy white peoples independence day the slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed fireworks.” Mr. Rock’s tweet may not have topped the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’s “God damn America” sermon, but both sentiments are of a piece, and both seem a far cry from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s appeal to the American dream and his embrace of “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
But this view of King as an ardent proponent of American exceptionalism fails to capture a significant part of his thinking, a set of ideas embodied in one of his most famous works, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” What we remember today as a stirring piece about freedom and justice was also a furious reading of American history and an equally indignant attitude toward King’s white contemporaries.
Arrested on April 12, 1963, during an epic struggle to desegregate Birmingham, Ala., King was in jail when he read the statement of eight white moderate clergymen who criticized the demonstrations as “untimely,” branded King “extreme” and chided the protesters for precipitating violence....