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What It Was Like to Be Jailed With MLK

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

(The Root) — The Rev. Jonathan McPherson went to jail for the first time in his life on Friday, April 12, 1963. It was Good Friday in Birmingham, Ala. Blacks on that day were defying an injunction outlawing protests, and under the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, they continued mounting a fierce but nonviolent challenge to segregation. For McPherson, King, Shuttlesworth and others, that challenge led to a police-wagon ride and lockup in cold cells with concrete floors. 


McPherson was about 29 at the time and on the faculty at historically black Miles College. McPherson's father bailed him out the next day. King was locked up longer, in isolation, and there he wrote his famous "Letter From Birmingham Jail," responding to white clergy who had questioned the need for and method of protest in Birmingham.

The letter was first made public on April 16, 1963. Exactly 50 years later, on April 16, 2013, McPherson joins several others in a progressive reading of that letter at Miles College.


McPherson, who has written a book about his experiences, is now a 79-year-old pastor and funeral home owner. He spoke to The Root about how not enough has changed since his days in the civil rights movement and what it was like being jailed with King. He also shared some choice words about today's black clergy and the GOP.

The Root: What was it like going to jail with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

The Rev. John McPherson: When we got out of the wagon and were going into the jail, it was already crowded with others who had been arrested and jailed for marching. We could hear them singing. We knew this was something we had to do.

When I asked an elderly gentleman in the cell with me why he was there, he said: "I'm here 'cause I want to see what the end is gonna be." The man was a regular in the marches. His name was Brother Meadows. He was in his 70s or maybe 80s, but he said he was going to stick with it all the way. If he had lived longer, he would have seen this city elect its first black mayor in 1979. A while later, he would have seen our first African-American president, Barack Obama.

TR: If you were to write a "Letter From Birmingham" today, what issues would you address?


JM: I'd address some of the same issues. Too many people today have the same attitudes they had 50 years ago. Eleven o'clock [on Sunday morning] is still the most segregated hour in America. You don't have colored water and white water, but we need not be deceived by the fact that we have a black man in the White House.

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.

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