Jonathan Rieder

Jonathan Rieder

Professor of Sociology


Sociology, American Studies, Human Rights


332C Milbank Hall
By appointment


Jonathan Rieder is professor of sociology at Barnard College and Columbia University. He joined the faculty of Barnard College in 1990 and chaired the department from 1990 through 2003. He previously taught at Yale University and Swarthmore College. Rieder teaches courses on contemporary American culture and politics;  music, race and identity; and the sociology of culture.

Rieder has been awarded fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Wilson Center for Historical Studies at Princeton, the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, the Du Bois Institute at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research, the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C., the Aspen Institute for Humanities, and the Russell Sage Foundation.

His two most recent books, both on Doctor KingGospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation (Bloomsbury, 2013) and The Word of the Lord is upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Harvard University Press, 2008)—have received critical acclaim [see excerpts from reviews below]. He is currently working on a book based on six years of field research in Alabama entitled Bittersweet Home Alabama; The Progressive White Rockers Who Are Reckoning with Race and Fighting the Culture Wars in a Churning South.

As a leading expert on Dr. King, Professor Rieder has discussed his work on such major media platforms as The Tavis Smiley Show (twice), The Charlie Rose Show,, the BBC, and All Things Considered and other NPR shows, as well as Australian and Canadian radio. He was featured in the History Channel documentary, Rise Up: The Movement That Changed America. He has published commentary on Doctor King in The New York Times, The New, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The, and The Root. Rieder has also spoken on Dr. King at major venues ranging from  the Carter Center in Atlanta to the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, from Riverside Church to the Birmingham Public Library, from Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia and Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem to Harvard’s Du Bois Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research.

His research on race and racial conflict dates to his first book, Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism (Harvard University Press, 1985). Canarsie has been widely hailed as a classic ethnography of white backlash and the racial and cultural politics of “Middle America.” David Frum deemed the book one of five critical books for understanding contemporary American politics

[see review excerpts below].

In the 1990s, Rieder was founding co-editor of CommonQuest: The Magazine of Black-Jewish Relations, along with the Chair of the Afro-American Studies Program at Howard University. Despite its subtitle, CommonQuest explored all forms of communal identity and conflict in the United States. The magazine drew praise for its brave and fresh reflections on race and identity by some of the most acclaimed and lesser known voices in academia, journalism, literature, photography, and religion [see below].

In the 1980s and 1990s, Rieder was a regular reviewer for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, where he specialized in writing about race, culture and politics in contemporary America. During the same period, as a contributing editor of The New Republic, he wrote cover stories which delved deeply into the most volatile racial upheavals in New York Cityblack-Jewish conflict in Crown Heights, the black boycott of Korean grocers in East Flatbush, and the hate crime killing of a black man in Howard Beach, Queens.


  • BA, Harvard University
PhD, Yale University

  • Sociology of Culture
  • Culture and Politics in the United States
  • Music, Race and Identity

Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation (Bloomsbury, 2013).

King May Have Dreamed,” The Los Angeles Times, August 25, 2013.

Songs of the Slaves,” The New Yorker, August, 23, 2013.

The Prophet Unbound,” The Washington Post, April 23, 2013.

"Too Black or Not Black Enough?: Final Thoughts on Beer Summits and Postracial Paradoxes,The Huffington Post.

"'I'm Going to Be a Negro Tonight': Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama and Postracial Paradoxes,"  The Michigan Review, Summer, 2009.

The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. (The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2008).

Here Doctor James Forbes reflects on Rieder’s Gospel of Freedom right after both spoke at Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem, pastored for decades by Dr. King’s associate Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, on the fiftieth anniversary of the day Bull Connor used the dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham:

Rieder’s New Yorker piece on “Songs of the Slaves” discusses Martin Luther King, Jr. as a crossover artist and the role of two songs in his March on Washington version of I Have a Dream:

Here is a link to his New York Times op ed on MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Praise for Jonathan Rieder’s Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation (Bloomsbury, 2013).

“[Gospel of Freedom] plumbs the depth of the spirituality out of which [Dr. King’s] leadership came . . .Thank you so very much for what you’ve done.”-Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr., Harry Emerson Fosdick Distinguished Professor, Union Theological Seminary

“Eloquent and prophetic. Rieder does for our uniquely American saint’s ‘Letter’ what St. Augustine did for the Letters of St. Paul. Part commentary, part homily, part exhortation to the faithful, Gospel of Freedom reminds us of ‘the fierce urgency of now.’”—Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies, Jewish Theological Seminary

"Simply a masterpiece. Jonathan Rieder brilliantly resurrects King’s 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' for the post-civil rights generation. He passionately weaves colorful history, elegant prose, and King's timeless words to inspire a new generation of freedom fighters and prophets." Rev. Dr. Kevin R. Johnson, Senior Pastor, Bright Hope Baptist Church, Philadelphia 

“A brilliant new reading of ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’ Rieder rescues a document too often encased in abstraction, insisting we read it in its searing moment:  amidst the violence, hope, and courage of the struggle for racial justice in which it was born Gospel of Freedom is an indispensable guide to one of the most important documents of the twentieth century. —Daniel T. Rodgers, the Lea Professor of History, Princeton University, author of Age of Fracture

“Jonathan Rieder’s extraordinary analysis establishes the ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ as the most important document of the 20th century. For anyone interested in justice, Gospel of Freedom is a must-read.” —Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, former chief of staff to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“For those of us who fought the fight for freedom in Birmingham, Jonathan Rieder’s Gospel of Freedom brings alive the extraordinary events of 1963 with insight and eloquence. With the help of rare recordings, he powerfully evokes what it felt like and sounded like to hear Martin speaking—when despondent, indignant, or joyous. Above all, Rieder beautifully captures the spirit of fierce but loving defiance that was key not just to Martin’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ but all our efforts to transform America into a vital democracy.”—Ambassador Andrew Young

“Rieder boldly hoists before us a more nearly complete Martin Luther King Jr. whose profound appeals to nonviolence were balanced by equally aggressive calls to resist the spiritual corruption and institutionalized racism of American society.” —Edward Gilbreath, The Christian Century

“‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ has been long overshadowed by Martin Luther King's ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Now Jonathan Rieder has written a vital book that gives the Birmingham letter its due as a piece of sacred literature in the long war against Jim Crow. A compelling book.” —Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

“Beautifully written and deeply illuminating, Gospel of Freedom is the rare book that engages both the general reader and scholarly specialists.  It's a lesson in using the art of close reading to reveal the complexity of historical context.  Rieder allows us to see the world through the King's eyes, a feat worth celebrating.” —Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor of History, African American Studies, and American Studies, Yale University

“With freedom songs and racist chants rising off the pages like steam from summer streets, Jonathan Rieder's stirring stage-setting for King's ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ brims with passion, rage, and fragile hope.” —Melissa Fay Greene, author of Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing

“A sparkling reconsideration of the ‘Letter’ . . . Gospel of Freedom is a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the civil rights movement, King, and America itself.”Booklist (starred review)

“An inspired work that belongs in every English-language library. . . [Full of]  illuminating revelations.” —Charles Shea Lemone,The Roanoke Times

“Rieder’s meticulous reading of the ‘Letter’ is invigorating.” The New Republic

 “A fresh perspective on Dr. King’s message . . . What distinguishes this work is the author’s close reading of King’s letter and his explorations of its origins and aftermath . . . By analyzing the ‘Letter’ as both literature and moral imperative, Rieder adds to his subject’s considerable legacy.Kirkus Reviews

 “Rieder’s investigation offers fresh and critical analysis of the ‘Letter’ and its author . . . By including these interesting and contrasting images of King—the high-minded, charismatic preacher, the angry and impatient movement leader, the anxious and sometimes melancholy servant, and the faithful and courageous steward—Rieder delivers a King we all can relate to.”—The Post and Courier

 “Rieder . . . displays a remarkably deep knowledge of King’s larger body of work, with cross-references and connections to other sermons and writings. Perhaps the most powerful and instructive of these comparisons is in relation to the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, given a few months after the letter was penned.” —Publishers Weekly

 “An extraordinary book. Rieder is the first scholar to illuminate the entire breadth and depth of this remarkable document, with uncommon skill and unblinking honesty. No serious student of the African American freedom struggle can afford to overlook this volume.” —Raymond Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders

 “Brilliant."San Antonio Express-News

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Praise for Jonathan Rieder’s The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Harvard University Press, 2008).

 “Absolutely brilliant . . . Fantastic, an amazing book.” —Henry Louis Gates, Jr

“All who revere the Good News of justice and reconciliation that King brought to our nation will be moved by Rieder’s pathbreaking account.”—E.J. Dionne, The Washington Post.

“Arguably the most creative book about King to date.”—The Christian Century

“Rieder saves Martin Luther King, Jr., from the curse of canonization. A brilliant reading . . .” Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage

 “Eye-opening . . . Rieder provides the best anatomy of King’s verbal imagination yet.” —Scott Saul, The Nation

 “Rieder . . . skillfully debunks the idea that the ‘black’-talking Kiing was ‘real,” while the one who invoked Reinhold Niebuhr was a mere performer.” — John McWhorter, New York Times Books Review

 “A marvelous book, really special.” David Hollinger

 “[A] rich, thoughtful new book . . .  Anyone who takes the time to peruse The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me will have no doubt: The real Martin Luther King Jr. more often sounded like Jeremiah Wright than like Barack Obama.” —David J. Garrow, Los Angeles Times Book Review

 “Invaluable.”—Adam Fairclough, Washington Post Book World

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Praise for Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against Liberalism (Harvard University Press, 1985).

“No scholarly book of recent memory better conveys the specific sense of outraged betrayal that swept through the urban precincts of the Democratic Party in the mid-1970s than does Jonathan Rieder’s brilliant study Canarsie.”—Wilson Quarterly

“This is the best ethnography of a white community to appear in a decade, and should be read by every scholar in urban sociology, political sociology, and social movement… Rieder has crafted a finely detailed portrait.”—Contemporary Sociology

“A sparkling shower of insights… Intellectually exciting.”—American Journal of Sociology

“Jonathan Rieder’s new book should be required reading, particularly for that endangered tribe of unabashed Jewish liberals, of which I count myself one… Unsettling and powerful.”—Al Vorspan, Reform Judaism

“Yale anthropologist Jonathan Rieder spent two years living not in New Guinea or up the Amazon but in a place that his academic colleagues probably found even more exotic: the lower-middle-class neighborhood adjacent to New York’s Kennedy Airport. There Rieder witnessed close-up the destruction of Roosevelt’s coalition by voter revulsion against crime, welfare, and casual disorder.”—David Frum, The Wall Street Journal

“A remarkably compelling portrait of the ways of middle America, drawn with compassion, grace, and wisdom.”—Kai Erikson, President, American Sociological Association

“The rise of Ronald Reagan and the politics of the 1980s surprised many of the country’s best-known analysts… Jonathan Rieder was in the right places at the right time—the streets and kitchens of Canarsie, Brooklyn—to understand what was actually happening (and going to happen next) in American politics.”—Richard Reeves

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CommonQuest: The Magazine of Black-Jewish Relations, 1995-2021.

“Open up the pages and be amazed,” wrote William Powers, The Washington Post’s Magazine Reader. Columnist Clarence Page observed, “CommonQuest candidly cools the heat and sheds light on where we go from here as an increasingly diverse and multicultural nation. If you need to pick one magazine to take you into the next century, this is it.” Jane Eisner, writing in The Philadelphia Inquirer, declared, “The editors offer a chance to view the tempestuous world of race relations through a lens that is piercingly clear.”

Sponsored by Howard University and the American Jewish Committee, the editorial board drew a distinguished mix of scholars, journalists, U.S. senators and representatives, rabbis and ministers, and writers, including Congressman John Lewis, Hon. Barney Frank, Samuel Freedman, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Michael Walzer, Anna Deveare Smith, Rabbi David Saperstein, Clayborne Carson, Martha Minow, Randall Kennedy, and Melissa Fay Greene.

With the support of the Kellogg and Ford Foundations, a special double issue, Diversity on Campus, ranged widely across a variety of campus settings,  examining, among many others, the experience of a Vietnamese football star at Texas A and M; Howard University students’ response to the O.J Simpson trial; “The Faces of Asian America” (a photographic essay on the identity dilemmas of Barnard, Columbia, and NYU students);  “Jewish Women in Search of Themselves”; “Dramas of Difference at Dalton”; Chicanos at Cal State, Northridge; and “The Hip Hop Nation on Campus.”

The articles from other issues included:

  • Itabari Njeri, “Kimchee and Grits: Blacks and Koreans in L.A.”
  • Burton Visotzky, “Stranger and Stranger in a Strange Land; Israelites in Africa.”
  • Charles Johnson, “The Lost Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.”
  • Nat Hentoff, “Multicultural Contempt for Free Speech.”
  • Deborah Willis, “The Art of James Van Der Zee.”
  • Annette Insdorf, “Damaged Goods? Holocaust Survivors on Screen and on Stage.”
  • Martha Minow on Identity Politics.
  • Sam Freedman, “Return to the Rock” (Sam Freedman and Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood--Mutual Discovery at the St. Paul Community Baptist Church).
  • Caryl Phillips, “On ‘the Nature of Blood’ and the Ghost of Anne Frank.”
  • “Identities on Screen” Stuart Klawans and Gene Seymour interview Julie Dash, Maggie Greenwald, Reginald Hudlin, Todd Solondz, Chares Burnett and Boaz Yakin.”
  • Albert Raboteau, “Turning to Exodus.”
  • The Art of Archibald Motley.
  • Gerald Early, “Who is the Jew; an African-American Meditation.”
  • Peter Steinfels, “Renewing the Forest: Catholics in the Multicultural Mix.”
  • Ann Douglas: “Siblings and Mogrels: Al Jolson, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin.”
  • Mel Watkins, “Magid and Mudbone; Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.”
  • Vivian Goldman, “How Jamaica Changed the World’s Music.”
  • Peter Noel, “When Justice Was the Rage; After the Brutalization of Abner Louima.”
  • Paul Butler, “Walking While Black.”

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