What It Was Like to Be Jailed With MLK

Fifty years after King wrote "Letter From Birmingham Jail," a man arrested with him recalls the moment.

The Rev. Jonathan McPherson (courtesy of the Rev. Jonathan McPherson)

Sometimes I am asked the question, “What happened to the Ku Klux Klan?” or “What happened to the White Citizens’ Council?” I say look in the Republican Party, and you’ll see those attitudes raising their ugly heads. It shows in their attitudes toward the president. So many cannot accept the fact that a black man has achieved the highest office and is in the White House. They demonstrate their attitudes when they show disrespect for the office of president.

TR: When did you learn of the “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” and what was your response at the time?

JM: I learned about the letter after it was made public. I didn’t know Dr. King was writing it while in jail. When I read it, I embraced it. I followed the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, led by men like Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. Abraham Lincoln Woods.

I worked at Miles College under the leadership of Dr. Lucius Pitts. The letter represented the prevailing attitudes in the Christian Movement and at Miles. If the letter had not been picked up by the national press, it would not have risen to prominence. That’s how it is. We don’t embrace something until it’s embraced by the majority culture. Dr. King, in writing the letter to our white brothers, gave classic respect and displayed great courage.

TR: Do you see the same fervor for social justice in ministers today as what was displayed in Rev. King, Rev. Shuttlesworth and other civil rights leaders?

JM: No. Now the emphasis for young African-American clergy is on materialism. Too many are focused on high salaries, jewelry, cars, large [memberships]. They attempt to seduce those who are not knowledgeable so they can get to the pocketbooks. The emphasis on serving the masses of people, helping those in need and fighting for social justice is not where it was or where it should be.

Denise Stewart grew up in Birmingham, Ala., in the 1960s and is a freelance journalist based in Alabama.