By John Blake, CNN
(CNN) - By the time Clarence Jones reached him, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was in bad shape.
He was unshaven, dirty and dejected. King had spent several days alone in solitary confinement with no mattress in a filthy dark jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama.
"Take this out of here," King whispered as he grabbed Jones' belt and stuffed bawled-up newspapers and toilet tissue down his pants.
Jones, King's lawyer, wondered if King was starting to lose it. He didn't pay attention to what King had given him - it was just a mish-mash of words and arrows scribbled on bits of paper.
"Not until five days later did I actually read a mimeographed copy of the letter," says Jones. "To be honest with you, I was more worried about bail money, not what he had written."
Millions of people have since read what Jones first ignored. As the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" on Tuesday, the document has become an American epistle. It's considered a classic defense of civil disobedience.
But those who see King's letter as just a tract on nonviolent resistance make the same mistake King's lawyer made: They miss what's special about something that's right in front of their eyes, some King scholars say.
The letter is one of the most intimate snapshots of a King most people don't know: An angry black man who once hated white people and, according to one scholar, was more dangerous than Malcolm X, a man King admired.
"Before everything else, (the letter) is a black man's cry of pain, anger and defiance," says Jonathan Rieder, author of the just-released "Gospel of Freedom," which looks at the "furious truth teller" revealed in King's classic letter.
King's blackness - his fierce racial pride, his distinctively black Christian faith and his belief that most whites were "unconscious racists" - is on full display in his letter, scholars say. The anger that drove King's letter would become more prominent in the speeches King gave until, literally, his last hours, Rieder says.FULL STORY
By John Blake, CNN
(CNN) – After Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. first gained wide public recognition in the mid-1950s, he made a special request to evangelist Billy Graham.
King was poised to join Graham on one of his barnstorming crusades, but would do so only on one condition. He asked Graham to publicly speak out against segregation, a request Graham declined, says San Diego State University historian Edward Blum.
“What Graham feared was losing all of his influence,” Blum says. “For him, personal salvation was primary, justice secondary. For King, justice was primary.”
After President Obama this week became the first sitting president to endorse same-sex marriage, black clergy and churchgoers could face a similar question to the one that fractured King and Graham: Should my ideas about personal holiness trump my notion of justice?
Read the full post on CNN's Belief blog
By John Blake, CNN
(CNN) – When he was boy growing up in rural Arkansas, James Cone would often stand at his window at night, looking for a sign that his father was still alive.
Cone had reason to worry. He lived in a small, segregated town in the age of Jim Crow. And his father, Charlie Cone, was a marked man.
Charlie Cone wouldn’t answer to any white man who called him “boy.” He only worked for himself, he told his sons, because a black man couldn’t work for a white man and keep his manhood at the same time.
Once, when he was warned that a lynch mob was coming to run him out of his home, he grabbed a shotgun and waited, saying, “Let them come, because some of them will die with me.”
James Cone knew the risks his father took. So when his father didn’t come home at his usual time in the evenings, he’d stand sentry, looking for the lights from his father’s pickup truck.
“I had heard too much about white people killing black people,” Cone recalled. “When my father would finally make it home safely, I would run and jump into his arms, happy as I could be.”
Cone left his hometown of Bearden, Arkansas, and became one of the world’s most influential theologians. But the memories of his father and lynch mobs never left him. Those memories shaped his controversial theology, and they saturate his recent memoir, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”