Panel Examines University Chancellor's Actions Prompting MLK's "Letter from Birmingham Jail"

King's Letter Rejected Bishop Carpenter's Call for Moderation

On April 12, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was locked in Birmingham’s jail on charges of violating a court order to cease his civil rights protests in that deeply segregated and white-dominated city.

That day eight of the city’s religious leaders published a public statement that cited the demonstrations “directed and led in part by outsiders” and called the protests “unwise and untimely.”

They did not demand King’s release or condemn the city’s police force for its brutal actions against the protestors.

On the contrary, they accused King and his fellow demonstrators of causing the violence and harming the cause of civil rights. They urged protestors to withdraw from the city’s streets and leave these matters to the court system.

The name leading the list of religious leaders blaming the demonstrators for the violent upheaval in the city and calling instead for moderation and patience in the face of that brutality was that of the Rt. Rev. C.L.J. Carpenter, the Episcopal Bishop of Alabama who was then serving as Chancellor of the University of the South.

Four days later, King responded to Carpenter’s statement with what is now regarded as one of the most important documents of the Civil Rights Movement: “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” 

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion,” wrote King, "that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

Carpenter, the Rev. Brandt L. Montgomery has observed, “should have been a man proclaiming God’s favor for all people … His gradual civil rights philosophy made the fight even harder.” 

“Why could Carpenter not see that the time for social change was then and immediate, not gradual and worked out over time? I wish that he had done so.”

This Tuesday, April 10, the bishop’s words and actions will be the subject of a panel discussion called “Visions of Unity: Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Legacy of Bishop Carpenter.”

The Sewanee community is invited to the discussion at 7 o’clock in Hargrove Auditorium at the School of Theology’s Hamilton Hall.

The discussion will examine the historical connection between Sewanee's Chancellor Bishop Carpenter and King’s iconic letter, considering what this historical moment has to teach us today.

The panel will include the Rev. Brandt Montgomery, who has written on Carpenter’s career; the Rt. Rev. Neil Alexander, dean of the School of Theology; and the Rev. Benjamin King, professor of church history at the School of Theology.

A light reception will follow.

The panel event is part of “Crossing the Bridge: Living the Legacy of MLK,” the series of university-sponsored events marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

The purpose of the series is to reflect on King’s lessons and actions in the 1960s and to consider his legacy: How have things changed? What more shall we do? How is MLK still alive in our actions?

Tuesday’s event is sponsored by the Diversity and Reconciliation Committee at the School of Theology and Sewanee’s Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation. 


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