Books, Culture & Race

Why black history is for white folks, too: A reflection on Birmingham Revolution by Edward Gilbreath

While it’s no secret that I care deeply about issues of racial equity and understanding, I must admit that my personal knowledge of the historical realities of race sometimes feels inadequate.  To assuage some of the guilt over my ignorance, I occasionally blame-shift and attribute my ignorance to the fact that I was educated in a predominately white community by a high school US History teacher who carried cigarettes in his socks and did more stand-up comedy than teaching. However, in my more honest moments, I must admit that I don’t know simply because I haven’t taken time to learn.

As a result, I was admittedly eager to read Edward Gilbreath’s new book, Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr’s Epic Challenge to the Churchin an effort to continue building a stronger foundation of understanding of racial issues in America. Having spent a fair bit of time within Christian communities, I’d found tremendous insight and relief in the honesty of Gilbreath’s first book, Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside Views of White Christianity.  He put words to the experience that I have so often heard from people of color and helped me understand realities that I don’t experience as a white person in the church.

Ironically, I read Birmingham Revolution this week in the midst of the unfolding of yet another failure of the American justice system to protect the senseless and random shooting of black youth. While there has certainly been progress in the past fifty years, it also grew painfully clear that there is still so far to go. I followed the race conversation a bit extra this week, taking in the clash of painful desperation from black voices and ignorant dismissal from white ones. Consequently, the 50-year-old stories of this book hit me extra hard as I watched our nation once again stumble through the throes of racial violence, prejudice and misunderstanding.

Gilbreath’s book dives in deep to the historical details of the civil rights movement in Birmingham in 1963.  I learned about Fred Shuttlesworth, the fiery bowels of Birmingham’s movement who had both the guts and humility to inspire the fierce perseverance of the non-violent protests that characterized the movement.  I learned about the Birmingham Eight, white clergymen who sincerely thought they were ‘helping’ race relations by writing a statement urging the Negro community to be patient and work within the system.  And I learned more about the influences and realities that shaped Martin Luther King, Jr. and the movement he led.  The story flows richly, and I found myself lost at times in the South of the 1960s, pondering how I might have seen things had I been part of the era.

Theirs were no easy decisions – blacks or whites.  For blacks, it was a decision to risk everything – even life itself – for change that they may or may not see in their lifetimes.  For whites, it meant letting go of power they didn’t even acknowledge they held and confronting a sin so deep it had blinded them for centuries. Neither option sounds like a walk-in-the-park to me.

In the midst of recounting historical details, Birmingham Revolution also addresses the here-and-now application of King’s letter specifically to the modern day church.  While ‘I have a dream’ makes a more dramatic sound byte, Gilbreath’s book shows how Letters from a Birmingham Jail is what we really need to be reading if we want to learn about living out the kind of reconciliation the Bible teaches.

Sit with these nuggets from MLKs letter for awhile to see which stirs you most:

birmingham jail quote 2birmingham jail quote 3 birmingham jail quote 4 birmingham jail quote 5

King’s words are eerily relevant to the church today, and the whole book left me feeling that, in Grace Biskie‘s words, MLK Jr. would ‘facepalm at the state of things today’. Birmingham Revolution shows just how much the white evangelical church has sided with the safety and reason of the Birmingham clergymen rather than learning from courage and tenacity of Fred Shuttlesworth.

“Race is the gigantic elephant in the American living room that some insist will disappear if only we would just ignore it,” Gilbreath asserts. “For African Americans and other people of color, however, it is difficult to ignore a six-ton pachyderm when it’s sitting on top of you.”

I’m afraid that I can’t say I see much change in white people’s fundamental view toward race today than what MLK saw at the end of his life, “Whites, it must be frankly said, are not putting in a mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance,” he wrote. “It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

As a white person, there are times when I get the distinct impression from my culture that Martin Luther King, Jr., black history, civil rights, and the like are for ‘those other folks’.  What I was reminded afresh in Birmingham Revolution is that the story is just as much about us as it is about them.  We played half of this story, and if we care at all about adressing the issue of the elephant in the room, we need to learn more about how it got there in the first place.

Further Reading

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