King spoke the language of White theologians in the letter, but it showed he was bilingual — that he was also fluent in the language of the Black church, some scholars say.
In his book, “Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare,” Cone talks about the fierce pride King had in his Black heritage.
King talked about taking pride in his kinky hair, once told a group of ministers that Jesus “was not a White man” (he said Jesus’ color was irrelevant), and in his famous letter and elsewhere King linked the civil rights movement with the Black liberation movements in Africa, Cone says. (King attended Ghana’s independence celebration in 1957 and Nigeria’s in 1960.)
In the letter, King boasts about being the “son, grandson, and the great-grandson” of Black preachers. Years before afros, dashikis and Black power, King was invoking Black pride.
“Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here,” King wrote in the Birmingham letter. “Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence … we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice … and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive.”
King’s affirmation of the Black church was a pattern. He often cited songs and phrases that were distinctive to the black church. He closed his “I Have a Dream” speech with the words from a Negro spiritual. The last sermon he delivered the night before his assassination — his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech — was built on riffs off the Exodus story, a biblical narrative favored by slaves.
“When your back is against the wall, you can’t have a borrowed faith,” Cone says. “It’s not your intellect that gives you courage. What gives you courage is that which has come out of your own history, that which has brought you to the place where you are.”
Cone says King’s anger was more threatening to America than Malcolm X’s.
“White people didn’t like Malcolm, but they could tolerate him because Malcolm wasn’t organizing Black people in a way that would challenge the function of the government,” Cone says. “King did.”
Though King’s letter made little difference in the Birmingham campaign, it did set up one of his greatest public moments.
“If the Birmingham campaign would have failed, there would not have been an “I Have a Dream” speech because he would not have been invited to give the “I Have a Dream” speech,” says Carson, editor of the King papers.
King was given the coveted closing spot at the 1963 March on Washington, where he was free to improvise the “I Have a Dream” speech because he had no time restrictions, Carson says.
That speech is still more celebrated than King’s Birmingham letter.
Rieder, the “Gospel of Freedom” author, says he knows why:
“It’s King as a dreamer with Black and White children holding hands,” Rieder says. “It becomes part of the myth of a post-racial society: ‘Aren’t we fine people?'”
The letter, he says, undermines America’s investment in its feel-good celebration of King. Many Americans aren’t ready to meet the King revealed in his epic letter.
That King isn’t a dreamer, Rieder says, but someone else: The angry Black man who wonders what kind of God some White people follow.