Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1786
[Duberman is an American educator and historian. In the following essay, he praises King's Where Do We Go from Here? for summarizing the "conflicts within the civil rights movement" but faults King's suggested solutions as either too general or impractical.]
In terms of character alone Martin Luther King is a phenomenon. He learned long ago that white hatred of Negroes reflects white, not Negro, deformities, and this has allowed him to feel compassion for the oppressors as well as the oppressed, to grow in strength even while surrounded by vilification. But recently the personal attacks on King have come from less traditional sources and must therefore have proved a greater challenge to his equanimity. Some of the advocates of Black Power and of black nationalism have begun to treat King's insistence on nonviolence as a prehistoric relic, and to mock King himself, with his appeals to religion, to patience and to conscience, as an irrelevancy. Their scorn has been modified in recent months by King's outspoken stand against our policy in Vietnam, but ironically that same stand has brought denunciation from a different quarter in the Negro community—from the established civil rights forces led by Roy Wilkins, Ralph Bunche and Whitney Young.
Faced with abuse on all sides, King has not only remained temperate but has continued to seek reconciliation—both within the Negro community and also interms of a larger alliance with disaffected whites. At the same time, he has continued to speak his mind, refusing to let pleas for tactical caution obscure the imperative responsibility he feels (which every citizen should feel) to apply ethical standards to international as well as domestic questions. To have managed all this in the face of heavy pressures and wounding accusations bespeaks a character of rare stability, breadth and integrity. What a pity he will never be our President.
King's new book, Where Do We Go from Here?, is his attempt to summarize the recent conflicts within the civil rights movement, to consider the larger context, both national and international, which helps to account for these conflicts, and finally, to suggest possible lines for action. King is far more successful, it seems to me, in dealing with the first two of these considerations than with the third, in part because of his tendency when speaking of the future to substitute rhetoric for specificity, in part because of the difficulties of analyzing this complex, appalling moment in our nation's history. That King succeeds as well as he does is additional tribute to the unruffled intelligence of this unendingly impressive American.
The book begins with the question "Where are we?" King, in answering it, makes some subtle and needed distinctions. He rightly insists, first of all, that the disruption of the civil rights movement cannot be explained, as it so often is, by resort to pat answers. The simple equation which has the white backlash growing solely out of Watts and Black Power is inadequate. The hard truth is that the decrease in white sympathy preceded those developments. With Selma and the Voting Rights Act, one phase of the civil rights movement ended—the easy phase—where white sympathy could be readily engaged against the outright brutalities of Southern life. But as King puts it, "To stay murder is not the same thing as to ordain brotherhood." Public indignation against the Bull Connors was achieved far more easily than was the follow-up commitment to eradicate discrimination in housing, jobs and schools—in other words, to establish equal rather than improved opportunities for Negroes.
White America showed its reluctance about equality before Watts and before the...
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emergence of Black Power, though these developments have since served as convenient excuses for still further delays. The reluctance showed in polls which indicated that 50 per cent of white Americans would object to having a Negro as a neighbor and 88 per cent to having their teenage child date a Negro. It showed in the refusal to implement vigorously civil rights legislation—a refusal which has left segregation the over-whelming pattern of our schools (84.1 per cent in the 11 Southern states), which has left Negro voter registration in Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia still under 50 per cent (and barely above it in four other Southern states), and which has made a mockery of open-occupancy and equal job opportunity legislation. In short, only a small minority of whites are yet authentically committed to equality, and it is this, not Negro "irresponsibility," which has prevented greater progress. The urban riots and the slogan of Black Power, as King says, "are not the causes of white resistance, they are consequences of it."
Though King's indictment of white America is as severe as it is justified, he follows it, curiously, with some optimistic predictions. The line of progress, he points out, is never straight: setbacks, disappointments, even retreats mark every movement for substantive social change. The current doldrums in which the civil rights movement finds itself were both predictable and natural, and Negroes should not, therefore, fall into pessimism or defeatism. The Negro has already won a great deal, King argues, especially in the intangible realm of heightened self-respect, and "no matter how many obstacles persist the Negro's forward march can no longer be stopped."
King bases this prediction on prescriptions which may not be filled. First, he advises black people to increase their efforts at amassing additional political and economic power. Here he agrees with the advocates of Black Power even while objecting to the way the Stokely Carmichaels have substituted for programs, slogans which imply separatism and violence.
Yet when King himself comes to spelling out a program for pooling black resources, economic and political, its stock generalities prove vulnerably close to Carmichael's sloganeering. He calls on the Negro to use his buying power to force policy changes among business concerns, but he gives no specifics as to which forms of selective buying might prove fruitful or which businesses might be the most useful targets. Likewise, when he calls on Negroes to develop "habits of thrift and techniques of wise investment," he says nothing about how thesequalities may be inculcated, about where the average Negro is to find the money with which to make wise investments, or, finally, whether such middle-class "virtues" are indeed those to be highly prized and cultivated.
King does not believe that the Negro community, even if it can be brought to unified effort, will by itself have sufficient strength to achieve its goals. He understands well the bitterness and frustration out of which many Negroes, especially younger ones, have turned to black nationalism and separatism in a search for structure and purpose in their lives. But the nationalist path, King insists, can lead only to disaster; it represents what Bayard Rustin has called the "no-win" policy, the mistaken notion that there can be a separate black road to fulfillment outside the main stream of American life. What is needed instead, King argues, is a continuing (perhaps one might better say, reinvigorated) coalition between Negroes and whites, a coalition which will be strong enough to exert real pressure on the major parties to become more responsive to the needs of the poor. Only such a coalition can requisition the billions of dollars needed to correct the hard-core inequalities from which the American poor, white and black, suffer.
King's position seems to me impeccable in theory, but it suffers, as he himself must realize, from the lack of available allies for the coalition he advocates. He speaks, for example, of a large group of poor whites who in reality share common grievances with poor Negroes. But reality, as we all know, is only one, and probably one of the weaker, wellsprings of human behavior. The real question is: Can the poor whites in America be brought to recognize their common interest with poor Negroes, or will the transcending power of racism continue to prevent such a merger? Historically, the evidence is not encouraging; with the brief and limited exception of the Populist era, poor whites have put race before all other considerations—including self-interest.
And yet what other than coalition politics can King recommend? Feeling as he does that the American Negro's future rests in his own country—not in Africa, not in a union of the dark people of the world based on some mystical abstraction like négritude—King must then find a way to encourage American Negroes to believe that they in fact have a future (that is, an equitable one) in this country. The most hopeful path continues to be the old one of coalition politics, and it is that path to which King adheres. But at this moment in our national life the brutal fact is that coalition politics is a slim hope only.
This is a fact that King, for both tactical and temperamental reasons, cannot afford to acknowledge. Its admission is impossible tactically because it might precipitate the Negro community into the arms of black nationalism, and this, in King's view, would mean a dead end. Its admission is impossible temperamentally because King's personal optimism is deeply ingrained. He believes obstacles are always surmountable, given sufficient will and faith. He believes American racism can and will be overcome, that the goal of "genuine intergroup and interpersonal living" can be reached, though the way be difficult.
Since the grounds for such hope have in reality become tenuous and since King chooses, for reasons of tactics and temperament, not to acknowledge that fact fully, he is forced to fall back on rhetoric as a substitute for argument, to rely on eloquence to camouflage the lack of supporting data. Thus his discussion of future prospects contains more exhortation than sustained analysis: "there is nothing to keep us from remolding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood"; "dark and demonic responses will be removed only as men are possessed by the invisible inner law which etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love is mankind's most potent weapon for personal and social transformation."
Exhortation, alas, even were it less pious, will not be enough to overcome the complacency and racism of the American majority or to restore the faith of the disheartened, alienated minority. It is far from clear what, if anything, can. The national prognosis remains poor until something—probably only an event of catastrophic proportions such as a major war or depression—plunges us to a level of despair, and thus of self-confrontation, which could, ultimately, lead to renewed health.
Martin Duberman, "Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?'" in his The Uncompleted Past, Random House, 1969, pp. 181-87.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6181
[In the following essay, Smylie examines King's use of biblical interpretation and references in his writings and sermons.]
The purpose of the following analysis is to explore the exodus theme in King's interpretation of the New and Old Testaments. Drawing upon the religious traditions of most Americans, including those brought from Africa, King defined the chosen people, oppression under this world's pharaohs, and the promised land in the light of his interpretation and acceptance of the radical demands of Jesus Christ upon his life.
Ironically, with regard to the Negro's quest for identity in America, the theme of exodus and deliverance from bondage comes out of the Hebrew experience of slavery in Africa. Not only so, but the exodus has been a dominant theme in the way white Americans have identified themselves. For white Christians, the Bible has been the rule of faith and life. It has been natural for Americans to think of themselves as chosen people and to interpret development of the New World, apart from the political and religious degradation of the Old, in terms of a Mount Zion in the wilderness. Similarly oppressed immigrant groups in the nineteenth century looked upon America as the promised land of economic as well as political opportunity. The exodus theme has been wed to eighteenth-century conceptions of liberty and justice embedded in the Declaration of Independence. At the time of the American Revolution, patriots thought of their deliverance out of the land of Britain as out of the house of bondage, and even considered using an engraving of Moses and the children of Israel being delivered from the Pharaoh's army at the Red Sea as the Great Seal of the United States. But in the conquest for this promised land there was sin in the camp. Black slavery was America's Achan—spoil which spelled trouble as an American dilemma. The Constitutional compromises following the Revolution suggested that America might mean liberty and justice for white Americans only—not for all. For the Jew especially the exodus has been a vital part of self-understanding. Until the establishment of modern Israel, Jews thought of themselves as in exile, as wanderers over the face of the earth since the fall of Jerusalem. But in the nineteenth century, Jewish immigrants to America, under the leadership of the remarkable Isaac Meyer Wise, began to interpret diaspora in terms of challenge, not punishment. They thought of the Jewish mission as that of spreading the true knowledge and worship of God, of achieving liberty and justice for all—not as the establishment of a new Jewish state. Jewish success in America has turned the place of exile into a promised land. Instead of being Shadrachs, Meshachs, and Abednegoes, Jews have experienced a new kind of Babylonian captivity in white America's gilded ghettoes, and have become identified with America's oppressors.
There is irony in the fact that the exodus theme is about the bondage of a people under Africans. There is also irony in the fact that Martin Luther King should be so effective in dealing with the oppression of Africans in America in an idiom which has meant so much to the majority of white Americans.
King did not want to be like Moses. According to his persuasive renditions of the gospel song at Baptist conventions at the age of four or five, King wanted to be more and more like Jesus. The childlike wish was prophetic of the man. It offers a clue to understanding King's later hermeneutical principles. A descendant of slaves, reared, and educated within America's Negro community, King shared with that community its religious memories and expectations, and moved from his New Testament understanding of Jesus to an understanding of the Old Testament theme of exodus. The grandson and son of Baptist ministers, and then an ordained Baptist minister himself, King did his interpretation within the milieu of the Afro-American community. While the debate over what remained of the slave's African heritage continues, it seems clear that the shock of alienation was so great that the majority of blacks had to establish some kind of personal and corporate identity through those religious and political categories in the master's culture. While the white man taught the slave submissiveness out of the Pauline corpus, the black was learning other lessons.
This is movingly illustrated as early as 1794 in the address of Richard Allen to those who kept blacks and approved the practice of slavery in the eighteenth century. Allen, the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, reminded Americans of a revolutionary generation that God himself was the "first pleader of the cause of slaves" ["An Address To Those Who Keep Slaves and Approve the Practice," in The Life Experience and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, 1960]. Because slavery is hateful in his sight, God, the "avenger of slaves," destroyed Pharaoh and his princes. The black preacher cautioned white Americans that they were behaving like the Pharaohs who despised the needs of feeble Israelites. But, while admitting how natural it is for slaves to hate oppressors, Allen reminded American blacks that hate was forbidden God's chosen people. "The meek and humble Jesus," he wrote, "the great pattern of humanity and every other virtue that can adorn and dignify men, hath commanded to love our enemies." Blacks were to do good to those who hated and used them spitefully. They were to give thanks to God for removing anger and bitterness from their hearts, and for delivering them from the desire to shed the blood of other men. It is not known whether King knew of Allen's combination of the exodus theme and the admonition of Jesus, but Allen's address indicates how old the approach is in the Negro community.
Obviously, the black experience in darkest America has involved considerable hatred, bitterness, and increasing hostility. From the beginning, black life was "one continual cry," to use David Walker's phrase, against American pharaohs. In the nineteenth century, Harriet Tubman was considered a Moses for her dangerous work on the underground railroad. Spirituals took on fresh cogency as blacks sang "Go down, Moses," or "Joshua fit de battle ob Jericho," or
O Mary, doan you weep, doan you moan, Pharaoh's army got drownded.
They signaled one another with "Steal away to Jesus," as some of the adventuresome ones were "bound for the promised land" in Canada. When subjugation under chattel slavery was replaced with exploitation under segregation, Marcus Garvey expressed the growing frustration of Negroes in the third decade of the twentieth century. He became a Moses, with a difference. Garvey celebrated blackness in his Universal Negro Improvement Association. He wished to take blacks black to Africa, the promised land, on the Black Star Steamship Line, blessed by the Black Madonna and the Black Christ. Obviously, slave revolts and race riots in American history indicate that violence, often sublimated in spirituals, expressed the blacks' truest feelings about the dominant majority. And as frustration has grown, blacks have turned from Christianity as manifested in white and black America toward such ideologies as Communism. Langston Hughes maintained that Jesus had been sold to "Rockefeller's church" and wrote
You ain't no good no more…. And step on the gas, Christ Don't be so slow about moving; Move.
Now King shared this legacy with the past. As a young black man himself, he felt the frustrations of blacks; but he rejected Communism as an alternative because it was a "metaphysical materialism," an "ethical relativism," and a "strangulating totalitarianism" [Stride toward Freedom]. His alternative was a politicizing of love, of the meekness and humility of Jesus. To be sure, it was from Gandhi's Salt March to the Sea which challenged Britain's imperial lion that King learned to appreciate the awesome power of nonviolent resistance to evil. Gandhi taught him that Christian love, part of the confessional life of his black tradition, was applicable to America and would be the instrument of his people's deliverance. But Christ, not Gandhi, supplied the spirit and motivation of his movement. King was fond of interpreting the word "love" in its biblical context. Following Anders Nygren's Agape and Eros, he made distinctions in the several words employed in the New Testament. Eros meant, in Platonic philosophy, the yearning of the soul for the divine, and in contemporary usage, a romantic love. Philia meant an intimate and reciprocal relation between two friends based upon mutuality. King emphasized agape, the "love of God operating in the human heart." This love shows that all life is interrelated. The Christian must seek the neighbor's good because of his need, and the enemy's good to restore and preserve human community. This love, King argued, involves forgiveness and reconciliation and is motivated by God's love made known on the cross: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." The crucifixion represents, on the one hand, the sordid weakness of man at his worst, and on the other, the "unlimited power of God," the "magnificent symbol of love conquering hate, and of light overcoming darkness [Strength to Love].
Taking this imperative seriously, King was able to adopt and adapt to advantage a method of nonviolent resistance, and interpreted the biblical witness for his followers. Some admonitions of Jesus' he took quite literally. When, for example, Jesus said to Peter, "Put up thy sword," Jesus, according to King, was demanding of Peter and the other disciples a better way. It was not a cowardly command. Jesus' call was to resist evil in such a way that those resisting would avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as physical violence, and would suffer without retaliation. Jesus called for a resistance to the forces of evil which would not defeat or humiliate the humanity of oppressors caught in the evil. This was the pattern of God's own love, a combination of toughmindedness and tenderheartedness. He interpreted other words of Jesus in a different way. In dealing with Jesus' warning, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword," King denied that Jesus meant a physical weapon. Rather, concentrating upon the word "peace," he suggested that Jesus intended to challenge the old shape of things with the creative demands of the Kingdom of God, to awaken a dead passivity with living, concerned love. For King it was only with the sword of love that the black could open the "boil" of exploitation with which America was afflicted and heal the infection. For King, love was the only pragmatic approach to black bondage in America. But the literal sword of violence was another matter. "All who take the sword will perish by the sword," he warned his hearers during the Montgomery bus boycott, in which nonviolent resistance was first employed. This was true for persons and peoples. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind, and history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that failed to follow Christ's command to love. It was through agape manifested in nonviolent resistance to evil that King hoped to cut the endless circle of bitterness, hate, and violence, counter-bitterness, counter-hate, and counter-violence.
In a remarkable paraphrase of Paul's letter to Corinth, King addressed American Christians:
Calvary is a telescope through which we look into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking into time…. In a world depending on force, coercive tyranny, and bloody violence, you are challenged to follow the way of love. You will then discover that unarmed love is the most powerful force in all the world [Strength to Love].
In this love King laid hold of one of the most important traditions of black America, turned it into an instrument of social change through nonviolent resistance, and confounded American pharaohs dependent to a large extent upon the same biblical tradition for self-identity. Moreover, King gave the basic clue for understanding his interpretation of those biblical passages which have to do with oppression and the Pharaohs, the promised land, and God's chosen people.
It is remarkable that King as a biblical interpreter alluded so infrequently in his formal writings to the Exodus narrative. In only one place did he deal with the narrative at length—and then in the most natural way—when he spoke of the dead Egyptians along the shores of the Red Sea. He was not interested, obviously, in scholarly treatments of textual variants, in the form, place, expression, and scope of texts, or, for that matter, in the differences between his world view and the world view of Hebrew people. As a matter of fact, King assumed that the exodus is an archetypal experience, and that the experience of the Hebrew people in Egypt was similar to that of blacks in America. Exodus supplied King with the metaphorical language which allowed him to interpret black experience, just as the black experience allowed him to understand something of what it must have been like in Egypt under Pharaoh. But King allowed agape to inform his interpretation at every point along the way.
Egypt, according to King, symbolized evil in the form of "humiliating oppression, ungodly exploitation, and crushing domination," while Pharaoh symbolized dominating oppressors and exploiters [Strength to Love]. King was, to be sure, preoccupied with his ministry to blacks in America. But from the very beginning of that ministry, his sympathies were as wide as humanity. The Bible, he wrote, witnesses to a thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh's court centuries ago and cried, "Let my people go." But the story of Israelites in Egypt was only the "opening chapter in a continuing story." The present struggle in the United States and throughout the world was only a "later chapter in the same story" [Where Do We Go from Here?]. There is, therefore, no discontinuity in the early event remembered and the existential situation from which all people in this world's Egypts seek deliverance. From the earliest days of his ministry, King's interpretation of those oppressed embraced, not only his own blacks, but all other enslaved people. Thus, those in Latin America, Asia, and Africa who had suffered from captivity were, indeed, breaking loose from the "Egypt of colonialism and imperialism." In all of these areas, some "courageous Moses" had arisen to plead for the freedom and justice of the people. Because of the liberation of people all over the world, King considered his obligations to the oppressed in America all the more urgent. The point is, however, that he interpreted Egypt as involving more people than simply those of his own minority. Moreover, his acceptance of the radical spirit and motivation of love allowed him to look with sympathy upon pharaohs and Egyptians. Oppressors are always "derivative victims" of their oppression, and King called attention to the fact that in America, the oppression of blacks had meant the financial, intellectual, and moral impoverishment of whites [Why We Can't Wait].
There is another continuity in addition to that which involves oppression in Egypt. Oppressed people will not put up with bondage forever. But when they seek deliverance, pharaohs and Egyptians act in a similar manner to prevent liberation. King experienced what Moses experienced in Pharaoh's court when he went before the City Commissioners of Montgomery—"pharaohs of the South," he called them—during the bus boycott. The pharaohs of this world will not give an inch. What the Exodus narrative illustrated is that evil is recalcitrant and determined, and when challenged, attempts to hold its power with fanatical resistance. When the pressure is increased, pharaohs will say, "Wait." Then pharaohs will say, "Go slower." What the pharaohs mean, according to King's interpretation of Exodus, is "Never." Pharaohs may try tokenism, but this is only a way to end pressure, not to begin the process of liberation. King was fond of developing this theme. When the demands continue, pharaohs will attempt to divide and dissolve the cohesion of the malcontents. King had to face this problem as the Civil Rights movement began to waver with the emergence of black power advocates in the mid-nineteen-sixties. "The Pharaohs," he warned his followers, "had a favorite and effective strategy to keep their slaves in bondage: keep them fighting among themselves. The divide-and-conquer technique has been a potent weapon in the arsenal of oppression." "But," King encouraged, "when slaves unite, the Red Seas of history open and the Egypts of slavery crumble" [Where Do We Go From Here?]. King was especially incensed with the way in which American pharaohs attempted to force American blacks to make bricks without straw. He believed himself in a struggle for opportunity. What he was told by whites was that blacks ought to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, following the pattern of other immigrant groups. King preached that this was a cruel jest. Blacks were not immigrants. They had been brought to America in bondage. Moreover, other minorities did not have to overcome the virus of racism which plagued American life. And the bootstrap methodology would work only if blacks had shoes. So far, the American pharaohs were satisfied to send the Negro into the wilderness without such help.
Given the mounting frustration of American blacks, King showed amazing sympathy for Pharaoh and his Egyptians. His one sermon on Exodus was on the text 14:30, "And Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea shore." It is worthy of special attention because it illustrates cogently the way in which King interpreted the Old Testament with the use of the New. Pharaoh will use every means to keep Israelites in bondage. After he is forced to let them go, he will even pursue in order to enslave them again. The text describes the children of Israel looking back at the poor drowned Egyptians lying here and there upon the seashore. Pharaoh had employed legal maneuvers, economic reprisals, and even physical violence to keep Israel in bondage. Now that the ordeal was over Israelites could rejoice. For King, the point of the story was not the dead Egyptians upon the seashore. "The meaning of this story is not found in the drowning of Egyptian soldiers, for no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being," he wrote. Rather, this story symbolized "the death of evil and of inhuman oppression and unjust exploitation" [Strength to Love]. There is something in the very nature of the universe, King held, which assists goodness in its perennial struggle with evil. "A Red Sea passage in history ultimately brings the forces of goodness to victory, and the closing of the same water marks the doom and destruction of the forces of evil" [Strength to Love]. This interpretation is inaccord with King's view of agape, and Jesus' teaching that excluded vindictiveness and vengeance. After the Selma march in 1965, when the provocation had been especially great, King spoke and fell easily into the use of the exodus metaphor. "Yes," he intoned in his rich voice, "we are on the move and no wave of racism can stop us." While he accused pharaohs and Egyptians of all the stratagems of oppressors, he repeated that the purpose of the march was not to defeat or humiliate the white man. He sought, not the triumph of the black man over the white, but understanding, friendship, and the victory of "man as man."
King did not use the idiom of exodus to describe the struggle for freedom simply as a class struggle; he interpreted in theological terms the struggle of all people seeking liberation. To be sure, he referred to "something" in the very nature of the universe which champions the cause of the oppressed; but for him, God is the Lord of history and the active agent in the cause. Here the Baptist preacher faced a problem—the passivity of black Americans, particularly in black churches, used to following Jesus, "meek and humble," without asserting themselves. This was due, according to King, to a perverted interpretation of Calvinism which left all to God. Countering this enervating theological approach, King made use of the Exodus narrative. "When Moses strove to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land, God made it clear that he would not do for them what they could do for themselves," he warned. "'And the Lord said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of israel, that they go forward'" [Strength to Love]. But, asserting the other side of the paradox, King confessed that all was of God. The God of the universe struggles for and with the oppressed. God remembers his people in Egypt. He gives the inner recourse to the oppressed to bear their Egypts, to break their bonds and to undertake the journey through the wilderness. He is the one who insures the victory of good over evil, truth over falsehood. Pharaoh may exploit the children of Israel—"nevertheless afterward!" Pilate may yield to the crowd and crucify Christ—"nevertheless afterward!" It is God who gives the afterward—the promised land.
King's interpretation of the promised land and God's chosen people is informed by his Christian humanism. As is clear from the preceding analysis, he did not see the promised land in terms of a territorial imperative. For Harriet Tubman the promised land was Canada; for Marcus Garvey it was Africa free from colonial government. For black Muslims, it has been several southern states, and more recently, for black nationalists, it has involved political hegemony of urban ghettoes. For King the promised land was an expression of a world-wide vision. He employed it many times. In encouraging blacks during the bus boycott, he told them to walk and not get weary. They could count on a "great camp meeting in the promised land of freedom and justice" ["Out of the Long Night of Segregation," The Presbyterian Outlook, Feb. 10, 1958]. They were moving through the "Red Sea of injustice" [Strength to Love] and into the "promised land of integration and freedom" [Why We Can't Wait]. The peoples of the world were moving toward the "promised land of economic and cultural stability" [Where Do We Go From Here?]. The phrase was a metaphor which embraced all people and the whole world. King summarized this dream for the United States in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the Washington march, August, 1963. In an address given just before his death, he renewed and revised his dream to include the whole world. His concern for Vietnam was, therefore, not new. It should not have come as any surprise that he should have championed the antiwar cause, not only because of his nonviolent approach to life's problems, but because he attacked all racism, militarism, and materialism. King often quoted Amos. The promised land was the world in which justice would run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. America's third revolution—the Negro revolution—was to lead to such a promised land.
There is a universalism in King's conception of the promised land. There is still a particularism to his definition of God's chosen people. God calls people to serve him in the struggle against oppression, exploitation, and domination, through doing justly and seeking righteousness. Who are the chosen people? Being a member of the Christian church, King was unwilling to disregard and discard it. But he was also unwilling to identify Christian institutions with God's chosen ones. Nowhere did he express more poignantly his disappointment with the church than in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, answering Christian and Jewish clergymen who thought his demonstrations were "unwise and untimely." They pleaded for honest and open negotiations on racial issues in Birmingham, as though Negro rights were negotiable. To King, they were acting like Pharaoh's magicians—and were giving another indication of the churches' aiding in the maintenance of the race-caste system in American society. The church was much in evidence in Birmingham, housed in massive religious education buildings. Members of these churches had "blemished and scarred" the body of Christ through "social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists," and the judgment of God was upon the churches, as it had been upon Pharaoh. Perhaps, King mused, "I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world." He thanked God for members of the church whose witness during the struggle for freedom was like "spiritual salt" which preserved the true meaning of the gospel of Christ in troubled times. The churches were full of "un-christian christians" and was not to be identified with the chosen people [Why We Can't Wait].
God's chosen people had a special responsibility to deliver the oppressed from the Egypts of oppression. King, like Richard Allen before him, maintained that the oppressed had a special place in God's economy. He believed that the black American had such a special responsibility. In his address to students in Oslo, when he was in Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he employed the biblical imagery. "We have left the dusty soils of Egypt and crossed a Red Sea whose waters had for years been hardened by a long and piercing winter of massive resistance," he said in rehearsing the history of his movement. "But before we reach the majestic shores of the promised land, there is a frustrating and bewildering wilderness ahead." Shortly thereafter when Negroes raised a cry for black power, King interpreted this in terms of the disappointments of the wilderness, and voiced a challenge to the American blacks. In Where Do We Go from Here?, he wrote:
Let us therefore not think of our movement as one that seeks to integrate the Negro into all the existing values of American society. Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness.
We are superbly equipped to do this. We have been seared in the flames of suffering. We have known the agony of being the underdog. We have learned from our have-not status that it profits a nation little to gain the whole world of means and lose in the end, its own soul. We must have a passion for peace formed out of wretchedness and the misery of war. Giving our ultimate allegiance to the empire of justice, we must be that colony of dissenters seeking to imbue our nation with the ideals of a higher and nobler order. So in dealing with our particular dilemma, we will challenge the nation to deal with its larger dilemma.
This is the challenge. If we will dare to meet it honestly, historians in future years will have to say there lived a great people—a black people—who bore their burdens of oppression in the heat of many days and who, through tenacity and creative commitment, injected new meaning into the veins of American life.
Despite this interpretation of the special calling of the black oppressed, King was equally unwilling to identify the black community with God's chosen people. He was aware of stiff-necked Israelites. Moses soon learned that the children of Israel did not always think kindly of their deliverers and in their wilderness ordeal often yearned longingly for the fleshpots of Egypt. King knew that members of the black bourgeoisie, serving, as it were, in pharaoh's court, had abdicated responsibility and were as little interested in justice and nonviolent resistance to evil as were their white counterparts. All people are oppressors. Blacks are no exception.
His conception of God's chosen people was directly related to his interpretation of the radical claims of Jesus. God's chosen people are those who have been set free from the bondage of fear, black and white together, and have thus been enabled by the love of God to challenge oppression wherever it may be found. King referred to the fact that the Indians had been able to move against the British only when they had been freed from fear, and he knew that God's people must be freed from fear to march on this world's pharaohs, not away from them. Some of America's blacks were so freed. "It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love," King wrote of the bus boycott. They were able to use this weapon because life was centered on the will and purpose of God. According to King, it is this love for God and devotion to his will that cast out fear. The true Christian belongs to a "colony of Heaven" in which ultimate allegiance is to God. Developing this theme further, he explained how
… hate is rooted in fear, and the only cure for fear-hate is love…. If our white brothers are to master fear they must depend not only on their commitment to Christian love but also on the Christlike love which the Negro generates toward them. Only through our adherence to love and non-violence will the fear in the white community be mitigated. A guilt-ridden white minority fears that if the Negro attains power, he will without restraint or pity act to revenge-the accumulated injustices and brutality of the years [Stride toward Freedom].
While it was the responsibility of the blacks to show the way, King argued that it was to be black and white together—moved by love, freed from fear, able, as were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, to resist evil, and to seek after justice for all. God's chosen people know that being killed is not the ultimate evil. The ultimate evil, he said, is to be outside God's love. Those inside that love are the true people of God.
On the night before he was assassinated, King described himself as a man who wanted to do God's will. God, he maintained, had allowed him to go up into the mountain. "And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land." He was engaged at the time in helping garbage workers in Memphis obtain better wages and working conditions. After King was shot, the editor of soul force, journal of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, changed the allusion. Instead of using metaphors from the Exodus narrative, the editor printed words from Genesis 37:19: "Behold, this dreamer cometh … let us slay him…. And we shall see what will become of his dreams." The allusion, of course, was to Joseph, not to Moses, to the beginning of Israel's sojourn in bondage, not to the deliverance from Egypt. What comes immediately to mind is the fact that the Joseph narrative had been used in the Hebrew-Christian tradition for theodicy, to assure the faithful that God will bring good out of evil.
For the first time in American history, a President of the United States ordered flags to be flown at half-mast to honor a simple Baptist preacher and leader struck down cruelly in the prime of life. Perhaps this national action was taken as much out of fear as out of respect for the man. To be sure, King drew to himself a great many Americans, white and black, Christians and Jews, who accepted his interpretation of America's problems and his approach to their resolution. But he was despised and rejected by many others. That hostility was undoubtedly inspired and motivated in part because he employed in his rationalization biblical themes and metaphors so important to white America. This was all the more aggravating because he interpreted the Old Testament metaphorsconcerning oppression, pharaohs, and the promised land, through his understanding of the imperative placed upon him by Jesus. King was a disciplined man, but everywhere he went, violence was always a possibility, either from enraged whites or less disciplined blacks unwilling to abide by rules he established for their nonviolent resistance to evil. In the end, that violence destroyed King himself. For a black man so to live out the life of Jesus Christ by turning the other cheek, by his willingness to forgive, not seven times seven, but seventy times seven, and to love the enemy in a struggle for all exploited people, may have been the ultimate insult to whites who thought they had a corner on the favors of Jesus of Nazareth. The unforgivable sin which King committed was to expose the hypocrisy not only of Americans as Americans, but more fundamentally of Americans as Christians.
As a Christian humanist, King's approach to oppression is extremely important in a time when the tendency seems to be toward narrow tribalism on the part of whites and blacks alike, for the feeding of group-ego and group-interest. According to studies, white America, despite professions of Christian love and pledges of liberty and justice for all, moves in the direction of two separate and unequal societies based upon white supremacy and the exploitation of the blacks. The American Jews, not all of whom have been ardent supporters of the black cause, are not excluded from this judgment. Moreover, some Jews in America have grown alarmed at black anti-Semitism, and are suspicious of Americans who do not agree with them on policies having to do with the defense of Israel as a nation state. Since the Six-Day War, one American theologian has accentuated the importance of Israel as the promised land, and has suggested that now the theme of Jewish history is homecoming, not diaspora. Militant blacks, convinced by the white majority that "whitey" does not want reconciliation nor a life of reciprocity with the black, have become more revolutionary. The cry for black power has been aggravated by a "Black Manifesto." James Forman, a type of Moses perhaps more like that found in Exodus, has confronted Christian and Jewish America, beginning symbolically at Riverside Church—Rockefeller's church—and has demanded reparations, the destruction of American institutions, and a new society. Since white America understands violence, some blacks reason, it may be through violence only that they can liberate themselves from oppression and establish their identity as men. King's Christian humanism, based upon the interpretation of the Old Testament through the New, was full of expectation forall men. His dream was not marred by black nationalism or racism, for in Christ, King believed, "there is neither Jew or Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. God, who made the world and all things therein … made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth." King, it appears from his later thought, was beginning to realize that when a people seeks liberty and justice within a land of bondage, they may need more than a strategy of nonviolent resistance to evil. The debate over black power forced to the front the clash between what the National Committee of Negro Clergymen call conscience-less power and powerless conscience. In this case, King, true to his interpretation of the biblical message, called for shared power for responsible use to meet the plight of blacks in urban slums.
When King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he expressed his hope in biblical terms:
I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land. "And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid." I still believe that we shall overcome.
He accepted the prize as a trustee on behalf of "all men who love peace and brotherhood."
James H. Smylie, "On Jesus, Pharaohs, and the Chosen People," in Interpretation: A Journal of Bible & Theology, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, January, 1970, pp. 74-91.
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[In the following excerpt, Mott assesses Letter from Birmingham Jail as an emotion-charged sermon in the tradition of "old-time Negro preaching."]
[Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail] is one of the most frequently collected items in college English anthologies and has proved the most popular reading among black and white students in basic literature courses for several years. The success of the Letter can be attributed, I think, to the remarkable confluence of three distinct rhetorical traits: King's heritage of the highly emotional Negro preaching tradition; his shrewd sense of political timing and polemical skill; and his conscious literary ability.
In view of King's rich legacy of sermons and speeches, it may seem inappropriate to emphasize the oral tradition behind Letter from Birmingham Jail. But the Letter has proved to be one of King's most eloquent utterances; and much of its power (and a few of its defects) arises from the same rhetorical elements that he employed in his oral addresses. His written style is only a slightly more formalized version of his platform style. In the Letter King retains the emotional power that is the trademark of the Negro sermon while he overcomes the flaws that hinder the utility of the sermon in the political and literary spheres.
The traditional Negro sermon derives largely from the preaching of such evangelists as Whitefield. It aims to arouse the hearer's emotions to the point where he is persuaded to turn to God or to experience God's presence. Althoughloosely based on a Biblical theme, this kind of preaching emphasizes emotional arousal to such a degree that "the theme itself is relatively unimportant" [Bruce A. Rosenberg in The Art of the American Folk Preacher, 1970]. Furthermore, because the preacher claims that inspiration for the sermon comes directly from God, he is not concerned with "logical organization." Rhythm and cadence almost unaided achieve the desired effect. One scholar [Rosenberg] notes that "the preacher relies upon stock phrases and passages to fill out the skel[e]ton of the sermon, and develops the message through repetition." The sermon is based, then, on a formulaic method that employs such devices as repetitive refrains, recurrent rhetorical questions, and formalized dialogue and narrative. The rhythm thus established is all-important: "The rhythm is the message; congregations have been moved to ecstasy by the rhythmic chanting of incoherencies" [Rosenberg]. The sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr., are unmistakably part of the tradition of "old-time Negro preaching." His Letter from Birmingham Jail draws power from this genre while avoiding its main weakness: a self-contained emotionalism that historically has encouraged the aloofness of blacks from social reform.
"Old-time preaching" is characterized by its lack of concern for logic. [William H. Pipes in Say Amen, Brother! Old-Time Negro Preaching: A Study in American Frustration, 1951], nevertheless, identifies a recurrent structural pattern in the sermons: (1) an introduction "to establish a common ground of religious feeling" among the audience or to establish rapport between speaker and audience; (2) a "statement of the text," which, of course, is almost always drawn from the Bible; (3) the "body of the sermon," which consists of repeated emotional climaxes; and (4) the conclusion, which resolves the emotional tension aroused by the sermon by drawing the sinners to God. Pipes's framework shows that the traditional Negro sermon, however much it derives its strength from formulaic repetition, is not mere unartistic incoherency. It justifies our treating the sermons—and, by inference, Letter from Birmingham Jail—as an art form.
The Letter is essentially a written sermon that both answers charges and exhorts to action. It is a measure of the artistic control that King exerts over the Letter that he creates a vivid persona aimed at arousing the sympathy of the audience. The ideal "old-time preacher" is a majestic, imposing figure; but King's projection of the image of a meek, suffering prisoner effectively strikes an appropriate rapport with his "audience." He immediately introduces himself, "confined here in the Birmingham city jail." And yet, despite adversity, he is capable of benevolence and generosity toward those eight clergymen, those "men of genuine good will" who have criticized his protest activities; he hopes his answer "will be [in] patient and reasonable terms." He is patient with the slowness the clergymen show in coming to terms with his arguments: "I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out"; "I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church"; "I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed."
It quickly becomes clear, however, that this understatement is not the sign of an Uncle Tom cringing before his oppressors: it is a calculated rhetorical stance. The Letter is, of course, more than a letter to eight Birmingham clergymen: it is an open letter. King's conciliatory tone—while apparently conceding ground in its humility—is intended to reveal the inhumanity of the clergymen's position and to hold it up to the scorn of those of us who are reading over their shoulders. Against the outrages King so powerfully exposes, the recalcitrance of the eight clergymen reveals them as the true felons for their toleration of evil. Letter from Birmingham Jail transcends the problem of social evil in its very real Christian vision of love and brotherhood. But King's tone here is a rhetorical strategy. Its "inoffensiveness" allows an audience which might not fully sympathize with his program to participate, at least, in his argument—and perhaps unwittingly to share his lofty disdain for the kind of short-sighted criticism of which the audience itself might normally be guilty. King's stance does not hide his rage. By suppressing his personal anger and frustration, and by resisting the human impulse to bombast and diatribe, he has given structure to individual misfortune and achieved a compelling piece of polemic.
The narrator confined in the Birmingham city jail, then, is not simply the activist minister who languishes in solitary confinement, irritated by isolation from comrades, family, and the wife who had just given birth to their fourth child. The narrator is also a construction of polemical expediency and literary imagination. He is further defined in the "second stage" of the exposition of the sermon/letter, the "statement of the text." Like the traditional Negro sermon, King's Letter has a broad thematic unity; and like the sermon, the Letter draws its "text" from the Bible. King is pressed to defend his nonviolent direct action, his "meddling"; his defense is based largely upon Biblical precedent, that God commands Christians to spread the gospel and to aid their brethren regardless of where they live: "Just as the prophets of the eighth century B. C. left their villages and carried their 'thus saith the Lord' far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid." The Letter is both a social manifesto and a religious testament. King is arguing for a religious life that translates vision into practice and that finds the spiritual life enriched by communal efforts for justice. Although the details of King's program remain open to challenge from reactionary and radical points of view, the vision itself is virtually above criticism in the context of the letter.
Having established his text, with its justification of the active Christian life, King's persona subtly exposes the timid inaction of the eight clergymen as an ungodly denial of the necessary fruits of the religious life. To the religious man, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial 'outside agitator' idea."
As we have seen in Pipes's scheme, the "third stage" of the sermon, the "body," with its repeated emotional climaxes, essentially is the sermon. Much of the raw emotional power of King's Letter arises simply from the increasing tempo and from the relentless force of repetition and parallelism. The first few paragraphs, which establish the speaker's personality and the text, contain relatively short sentences presented matter-of-factly; but as it proceeds, the Letter accelerates a strong rhythm, the sentences become longer in key emotional passages. Bruce Rosenberg has observed that many oral preachers "were unaware of creating" the moving passages of parallelism that characterize such preaching; but he suspects that "in the case of Dr. King and other preachers of comparable learning who preach spontaneously, it is hard to believe that they were not aware of the effect on the audience." King is certainly in full control of the effects produced by parallelism and repetition in the Letter. A few of the weaknesses of King's written style arise from the attempt to translate oral rhetoric onto paper: it is occasionally grating to hear philosophical definitions artificially confined in a paragraph structured on rigid parallelism; and repeated neatantitheses ("dark clouds of racial prejudice/radiant stars of love") are often predictable and trite. When one recalls King's ability on the platform to make clichés sound fresh and exciting, however, one is aware that these are weaknesses of adapting the message to a different medium. Even in the Letter he achieves great power from parallelism and repetition.
The measure of this power cannot be appreciated fully, however, by examining emotional effects apart from other rhetorical elements. Pipes notes that the Negro sermon has always contained implicitly various kinds of deductive and inductive logic, that ethics accompany emotional arousal as a secondary concern, that sources outside the Bible are sometimes cited, and that argument from authority often complements simple formulaic progression. King effectively exploits this potential in Letter from Birmingham Jail.
King begins his defense of the Birmingham campaign by listing the "four basic steps" of "any nonviolent campaign." One is finally less interested in the logic of his analysis than with the opportunities the "four basic steps" afford for his powerful denunciations of injustice and exhortation to action. It is the nature of men caught up in emotionally charged debate to be unimpressed by rational discourse and logical argument; certainly no one will be convinced by the logical force of King's "four basic steps" who is not already sympathetic to his nonviolent philosophy. It is not to deny the logic of King's argument, then, to say that his logical scheme is effective on a largely verbal level. Yet his logic throughout the Letter is unanswerable. In a brilliant paragraph he answers the charge that his actions "precipitate violence": he challenges the logic of the clergymen and in a series of increasingly dramatic, grammatically parallel rhetorical questions, he reveals that those who make direct action necessary are guilty of precipitating violence: "Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?" He concludes in an eloquent understatement that resolves the tension created by the rhetorical questions: "Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber." King's devastating logic, then, exploits an untapped root ofthe traditional Negro minister's resources. It lends authority and dignity to his argument. It permits a sharp analysis that reveals unexpected and stunning truth which our comfortable commonplaces too often prevent us from seeing; it reminds us that the eight clergymen deny, in effect, the very truths their offices were created to perpetuate. But the great impact of Letter from Birmingham Jail does not arise from King's being a clinical logician. It is his ability to discover fundamental moral flaws in his opponents' charges that makes his argument so unanswerable. And it is his conscious literary skill with parallelism and understatement that makes his argument so emotionally convincing.
King's theme of the social and ethical implications of Christianity is reinforced by another strategy uncharacteristic of the traditional Negro sermon: reference to sources and authorities outside the Bible. The Letter remains, I think, an essentially Christian statement; but it gains force from King's eagerness to cite contemporary events and people and to muster authorities from Moses to Buber and Tillich, from Socrates to Jefferson and Lincoln. The references to Aquinas, Buber, and Tillich have special relevance, of course, to King's immediate audience, the clergymen. But the general effectiveness of citing authorities again lies in its impressive verbal impact. (He is not concerned here with such complex historical problems as Jefferson's keeping of slaves, or Lincoln's playing politics with the Emancipation Proclamation.) The very weight of his authorities assuages a reluctant audience's fear that his actions are frighteningly without precedent.
Herein lies King's greatest strength as a rhetorician: his ability to gently answer charges that he is impatient, radical, an "outside agitator"; to surprise the reader into an unexpected awareness of what the charges really imply; and to transform the very charges leveled against him into an occasion for exhortation and encouragement for his own camp. King has an uncanny ability to translate familiar terms into new and challenging concepts; but at the same time he convinces us that his seemingly revolutionary techniques belong to tested and revered traditions. To the assertion that negotiation would be better than the forms of direct action which produce "tension" in the community, King replies that "tension" is a necessary ingredient of any "creative" process; without continual challenge to existing conditions, opportunities for constructive change will never appear. When King says "I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation," he has not given any ground to his accusers; on the contrary, he has usurped their ground by showing that the "negotiations" they prefer can be achieved only by his method of forcing a recalcitrant South to welcome the "tension" necessary for creative change—by nonviolent direct action. He has thus redefined a term that commonly connotes unpleasant friction into a concept that evokes promise and vitality. The dense antitheses in this paragraph depend upon rather trite metaphors ("from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realms of creative analysis and objective appraisal"; "from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood"). But the cumulative force of King's interchangeable, formulaic metaphors carries the weight of his argument in a flight of noble emotion. Profound but elemental truth can find expression often only in language that borders on triteness.
To the charge that his actions are "illegal," King replies that "legality" and "justice" are not always compatible. Through rhetorical antitheses he demonstrates that to serve justice one must sometimes break the law: "An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is a difference made legal. By the same token a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal"; "Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application"; "We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was 'legal' and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was 'illegal.'"
By carefully establishing precedents for his nonviolent direct action, King convinces us that his program is a means of restoring what rightfully belongs to the blacks. He assures us that "there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience" and cites Biblical figures, Socrates, and American patriots as his predecessors. Blacks seek nothing extraordinary or alien to "the American dream." On the contrary, "our destiny is tied up with America's destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here." The very act of protest against repression, then, is not an act of arrogance but an attempt to restore and fulfill the ideals on which our nation was founded: "One day the South will know that when these disinherited childrenof God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage."
King is not simply lending "respectability" to his philosophy by citing revered precedents; he is employing sound methods of persuasive rhetoric by arguing within the frame of reference familiar to a broad audience. Again he swallows the natural impulse to assault the sacred cows of the opposition; in so doing, he has produced prose that is both inspiring and polemically effective.
King thus gives historical and philosophical justification to his movement. He proceeds to handle deftly more specific and gnawing criticism from both the clergymen and black nationalists. In one of his most brilliant passages of "redefinition," King rejects the clergymen's charge that his action is "extreme." He warns them that his "extremism" has been the last stop-gap between responsible protest and violence; for white Birmingham to ignore his movement is to invite "a frightening racial nightmare." Essentially, then, King redefines himself as a "moderate" trying to "stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community": "complacency" and black nationalism. Not to remain a sitting duck for Muslim critics, King launches into an impassioned account of the results of repression and frustration; he concludes that his philosophy of nonviolent direct action has been a "creative outlet" for these forces. That this action had been termed "extremist" King admits "initially disappointed" him. But, in another of those marvelous paragraphs that combine sophisticated technique and emotional preaching power, King decides that the charge of extremism is cause for satisfaction; for if fidelity to noble principles of love, faith, and conscience be "extreme," then extremist he admits he is. He cites towering authorities: Jesus, Amos, Paul, Luther, Bunyan, Lincoln, Jefferson—all "extremists" in the cause of truth. The relentless parallelism with which he alternates rhetorical questions with quotations from his authorities gives an air of inevitability to his self-defense.
King has here resolved attacks from white racists, white moderates, Uncle Toms, and Black Muslims. On one level, he has simply and eloquently rediscovered the kind of extremism that is always latent in social action against sharp and painful criticism from divergent groups. Surely King was especially hurt by the hostility of other blacks who felt that he had begun to drag his feet, had become ineffectual; for the moment, at least, King transcends such conflict in a vision of Christian perfection.
With authorities firmly established and the cry for freedom for blacks clearly rooted in sacred American institutions, King truly can turn the accusations of the clergymen upon their own heads. Authentic Christianity never shirks the truth. The original "God-intoxicated" Christians so faithfully followed the inner light regardless of persecution that "they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests." It is the most telling blow against the clergymen that they stand accused of hypocrisy and of defending a dead institution: "Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound…. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century." King is no longer on the defensive, a man charged with "extremism"; he is now the discoverer and champion of old, cherished, and sacred values. Like the Birmingham that denies the promises of the Founding Fathers and the American dream, the eight clergymen represent a sterile convention that mocks the body of sacred truth from which it was born.
Probably the most memorable passage in Letter from Birmingham Jail is that in which King explores the familiar injunction to "Wait!" for civil rights rather than to provoke turmoil. Here King's greatest rhetorical assets operate simultaneously. He curtly states that "This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'" His definition is not that of a skilled grammarian: it provides an adverb as a synonym for a verb. But the meaning rings clear. In a painful, powerful paragraph, King presents the numerous abuses that black people have endured for generations. But he does more than enumerate complaints: in the merging of content and style, he also achieves great artistry. An agonizingly long series of dependent clauses establishes intellectually and sensuously the conditions that make "waiting" no longer possible ("when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when …; when …"). The very process of reading the series of abuses becomes so physically wearying, the cumulative impact of the grammatically parallel dependent clauses so enervating, that the long-awaited independent clause that resolves all the conditional statements deflates our expectation of a thundering protest with its eloquent understatement: "then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait." King continues: "There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over." What better metaphor than this, not only for a recapitulation of theme, but also for what King has achieved stylistically! The torrent of adverbial clauses capturing the agony of "waiting" literally pours over the simple little cup of the main clause, moving us emotionally while convincing us intellectually that "waiting" can no longer be expected. King concludes the paragraph with another masterly stroke of understatement: "I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience." Controlled irony is infinitely more devastating than self-indulgent vitriol.
Pipes notes that the "fourth stage" of the Negro sermon, the conclusion, attempts to resolve the emotional intensity aroused throughout the sermon and to call the sinners to God. King releases us from the repeated emotional climaxes of Letter from Birmingham Jail in the final three paragraphs, a kind of apology (in the sense of "justification") for the Letter and a benediction urging Christian brotherhood. The next to last paragraph is an eloquent reminder that, however conciliatory and brotherly his tone has been, he has in no way conceded merit to the charges of the clergymen: "If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me." Most of King's rhetorical trademarks are here: the antithesis, the parallelism, the logic cloaked in strong rhythm, the understatement that cuts more deeply than overstatement. By grammatically paralleling the clergymen ("you") with God, he underlines their failure to measure their complaints against simple standards of morality; he shows that unswerving commitment to truth too often belongs to the man of God "alone in a narrow jail cell." There is release here only from the driving rhythm that marks the Letter, there is no escape from the quiet but profound irony of King's conclusion—only the temporary esthetic satisfaction of having comprehended anger and frustration. Letter from Birmingham Jail is finally more than a self-defense; it is a challenge to recognize real justice, real truth, and ultimately a challenge to act.
I have not tried to claim that King's final significance is literary rather than social and political; his lasting achievement is that he made civil rights protest a viable tactic for social change. Nor do I mean to suggest that King's vision of the struggle of blacks is more valid than that of any other faction that succeeded him; only history can determine that. What I have tried to show is that King was capable of the kind of sustained eloquence that has made Malcolm X's Autobiography and Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice acknowledged masterpieces of the black experience. It is a measure of King's achievement that he pushed the traditional Negro sermon beyond its historical limitations. His Letter borrows the most prominent traits of this genre and successfully translates them to previously unexplored fields of polemic.
From its inception in the South in the eighteenth century, the "old-time" style of preaching was an effective tool of repression. White slavemasters actually encouraged the presence of itinerant preachers on their plantations because "they usually taught a religion of consolation rather than of revolt against their white masters" [Rosenberg]. Emotional release through religion did much "to encourage the slave along the road of mental escape from his conditions" [Pipes]. Pipes respects the "old-time" sermon as a folk-art form. But he argues that its survival continues to be an index of repression of Negroes. As Negroes have access to "new opportunities of normal expression," and educational and economic advancement, their "degree of frustration is … lowered." It is easy to see, then, why a new brand of black activists would be tempted to dismiss completely the politics—and indeed the style—of Martin Luther King, Jr., as outdated, irrelevant to the continuing black revolution.
Apart from its unfortunate historical connotations, the "old-time" Negro sermon has recently attained a large measure of respect for its unique artistic achievement. Bruce Rosenberg praises the old oral tradition because it "frees the minds of the audience from concern with what language, music, or story element is to come next, and so they are freer to involve themselves with the rhythm and the music and the emotion of the performance." King's achievement—as preacher, public leader, and writer—is that he harnessed the profound emotional power of the old Negro sermon for purposes of social action, thus overcoming the historical limitations of the tradition. Whether or not he had become irrelevant to the protest movement, as Cleaver has charged, King's service in transforming the Negro sermon was crucially important. He did not abandon the genre for the sake of social engagement: he used the emotional power of the tradition to serve the protest movement. Letter from Birmingham Jail is convincing largely because it has an appealing emotional depth rare in argumentative writing. History will decide whether Martin Luther King, Jr. died at the peak of his effectiveness as a reform leader. Letter from Birmingham Jail has a timeless eloquence that finally transcends such concerns.
Wesley T. Mott, "The Rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr.: 'Letter From Birmingham Jail'," in PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, fourth quarter (December, 1975), pp. 411-21.
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[Carson, an American educator and historian, is the senior editor and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers project and Peter Holloran is an assistant editor on the project. Ralph E. Luker and Penny Russell are editors of volumes 1 and 2 of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the following essay, they consider King's theological writings as "evidence of King's effort to construct an identity as a theologian and preacher."]
What is the historical and biographical significance of the papers Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote as a divinity student at Crozer Theological Seminary and as a doctoral student at Boston University? Judged retroactively by the standards of academic scholarship, they are tragically flawed by numerous instances of plagiarism. Moreover, even before the Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project's discovery of the citation deficiencies in the papers, only a few students of King had thought them deserving of the type of careful study that would have exposed those deficiencies. Scholars, seeing the papers through the distorting prism of King's subsequent fame and martyrdom, usually considered them insignificant, except for the few clues they provide regarding the nonviolent protest strategies King later advocated. These papers disclose new meanings, however, when they are studies as evidence of King's effort to construct an identity as a theologian and preacher rather than as undistinguished scholarship or as evidence of King's adoption of ideas regarding nonviolent strategies of change.
King's appropriations of the words and ideas of others should certainly not be understood merely as violations of academic rules. They also indicate his singular ability to intertwine his words and ideas with those of others to express his beliefs persuasively and to construct a persona with broad transracial appeal. Though in large measure derivative, King's student papers document an important stage in the development of his thought and leadership qualities. As he mined theological texts for nuggets of cogency that would serve his academic ends, King resolved long-standing religious doubts and refined a method of eclectic composition that would enrich his sermons, speeches, and published writings.
King himself complicated scholarly understanding of his academic experiences through ambiguous autobiographical statements about his years at Crozer and Boston. Particularly in his first and most widely read book, Stride toward Freedom, King drew on various sources to strengthen his public image as a knowledgeable exponent of Christian-Gandhian strategies of nonviolent struggle. As Keith D. Miller has demonstrated, King's account, in a chapter entitled "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence," obscured the extent to which his understanding of Gandhism and other social reform strategies derived from a network of Social Gospel advocates, both black and white. Miller's work reflects a trend in King scholarship toward greater recognition of the impact of African-American religious influences on King's thought and of black religious leaders as models for his ministry. Rather than acknowledging his dependence on nonscholarly and African-American sources, however, King, in Stride toward Freedom, suggested that his sociopolitical ideas derived mainly from his readings of major theological texts. King downplayed the impact of his early experiences as the grandson of the Reverend A. D. Williams, a founder of the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); the son of the Reverend Martin Luther King, a leader of civil rights protests in the 1930s and 1940s; and an acquaintance of numerous other black proponents of the Social Gospel, including President Benjamin Mays of Morehouse College, Morehouse religion professor George D. Kelsey, and Atlanta minister William Holmes Borders. Instead, King emphasized the refinement of his ideas at predominantly white institutions. "Not until I entered Crozer Theological Seminary in 1948 … did I begin a serious intellectual quest for a method to eliminate social evil," he explained. While emphasizing his concern with social justice issues while a student, King also understated the importance he gave to the abstract theological issues that were actually the focus of his graduate school papers. "Although my major interest was in the fields of theology and philosophy," King remarked, "I spent a great deal of time reading the works of great social philosophers." Providing graphic descriptions of his initial encounters with the ideas of Walter Rauschenbusch, Karl Marx, and Mahatma Gandhi, King mentioned only briefly his study of systematic theology. His references to his theological readings were vague and usually in connection with their political implications. The section on his graduate school experiences includes only a brief passage describing his study of "personalistic philosophy" under Edgar S. Brightman and L. Harold DeWolf. This "personal idealism," King asserted, became his "basic philosophical position." He added that when he received his doctorate from Boston University in 1955, the "relatively divergent intellectual forces" of his academic training were "converging into a positive social philosophy" [Stride toward Freedom].
King's desire to stress the social and political implications of his theological training was understandable given his intended audience. As is usual for the autobiographical writing of public figures, Stride toward Freedom was intended to mold an image as well as to reveal personal experiences. Stressing the political uses he would make of his studies, rather than his primarily theological concerns when he wrote them, King reconstructed his past to serve his current purposes. He also overstated his familiarity with the ideas of leading intellectuals, thus underrating the importance of less prominent intellectuals and influences. The book succeeded in shaping scholarly understanding of King's intellectual development; few subsequent biographies have departed from its interpretive framework. Unfortunately, King's explanation of the development of his social and political views discouraged later researchers from giving adequate attention to either the African-American sources of his religious activism or the European-American sources of his theological perspective. Discounting the scholarly significance of his student writings in systematic theology has led many King biographers to neglect their biographical significance. Lerone Bennett, Jr.'s generally laudatory biography, initially published during King's lifetime, set the tone for later accounts by offering faint praise for his academic achievements and concluding that King's dissertation gave him "discipline and training in the organization of ideas, if not in the creation of ideas." In the initial edition of his biography, David L. Lewis described King as lacking "the comprehensive critical apparatus and the inspired vision that bless good philosophers"; although "highly competent scholastically," King possessed an intelligence that was, in Lewis's view, "essentially derivative." James P. Hanigan, one of the few scholars to attempt a systematic study of King's ideas, similarly dismissed the notion of King as a major theologian—"a somewhat surprising assessment of a man who wrote not one word of formal theology after finishing his unpublished doctoral dissertation." This tendency to downplay King's scholarly abilities and aspirations probably accounts for the failure of previous accounts of King's student years to note the citation deficiencies of his academic writings.
King's academic papers nevertheless deserve serious study because they provide crucial evidence about his struggle to reconcile his deep feeling for African-American religious practices with his persistent theological doubts. King overcame his initial reluctance to enter the ministry only as he began to recognize his father and grandfather as appealing role models who had shown that pastoring could be combined with social activism. Like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him, King came to accept the black church as an institution in which he could gain distinction and a sense of rectitude while serving the black community. As a dutiful minister's son, he felt an inalienable sense of church membership and clerical competence even while becoming a dissenter within the black Baptist tradition. King's student papers reveal both his scholarly pretensions and his honest effort to reconcile the emotional satisfactions of traditional African-American religion with the intellectual clarity he sought in theological scholarship.
In an especially revealing Crozer paper entitled "An Autobiography of Religious Development," King traced this tension in his religious beliefs to his childhood, when he had felt unmoved by an evangelist visiting Ebenezer who urged his audience to join the church. King had followed his older sister in coming forward, but he realized that he "joined the church not out of any dynamic conviction, but out of a childhood desire to keep up with my sister." A "questioning and precocious type," he remembered shocking his Sunday school class at the age of thirteen "by denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus." After entering Morehouse College at the age of fifteen, he had seen "a gap between what I had learned in Sunday School and what I was learning in college." His religious doubts "began to spring forth unrelentingly" until Professor Kelsey showed him "that behind the legends and myths of the Book were many profound truths which one could not escape." Despite this religious skepticism, however, King had already decided on a ministerial career by the time he graduated from Morehouse. Theological differences did not undermine his admiration for his father's "noble example." As a student at Crozer, he still felt the effects "of the noble moral and ethical ideals I grew up under. They have been real and precious to me, and even in moments of theological doubt I could never turn away from them." Having already joined the ministry in response to "an inescapable urge to serve society," King at first accepted the Christian liberalism of his Crozer professors "with relative ease." But his theological studies focused increasingly on the metaphysics of God and religion, rather than on the social role of the Christian church. His religious upbringing had supplied satisfying answers regarding the latter; it offered him less guidance on the former.
At Crozer, King clarified his views of God and humanity and struggled to reconcile his own experience with his readings in theology. Choosing Crozer because of its reputation for liberalism and critical biblical scholarship, King initially identified with that ethos. The papers he wrote during his first-year courses on critical biblical scholarship demonstrated his appreciation of the significance of archaeological and historical evidence in the study of Scripture. Those essays satisfied the demanding standards of the distinguished biblical scholars James Bennett Pritchard and Morton Scott Enslin, but they lack selfrevelatory passages and seem to have engaged King only superficially. King was more drawn to theology as taught by George Washington Davis, and he took nearly a third of his courses at Crozer with Davis. Davis exposed King to the writings of leading modern theologians, introducing him to the issues that would become the central concerns of his doctoral studies. As he became absorbed in the modern theological literature, King increasingly referred to his personal experiences to explain his gradual movement from an uncritical liberalism toward greater appreciation for traditional religious perspectives. In an essay for Davis entitled "How Modern Christians Should Think About Man," he argued that liberals too "easily cast aside the term sin, failing to realize that many of our present ills result from the sins of men." King admitted that his conception of man was:
going though a state of transition. At one time I find myself leaning toward a mild neoorthodox view of man, and at other times I find myself leaning toward a liberal view of man. The former leaning may root back to certain experiences that I had in the south with a vicious race problem. Some of the experiences that I encountered there made it very difficult for me to believe in the essential goodness of man. On the other hand part of my liberal leaning has its source in another branch of the same root. [In] noticing the gradual improvements of this same race problem I came to see some noble possibilities in human nature. Also my liberal leaning may root back to the great imprint that many liberal theologians have left upon me and to my ever present desire to be optimistic about human nature.
In the essay King acknowledged that he had become "a victim of eclecticism," seeking to "synthesize the best in liberal theology with the best in neo-orthodox theology," particularly the writings of Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. Rejecting "one-sided generalizations about man," he concluded that "we shall be closest to the authentic Christian interpretation of man if we avoid both of these extremes." This statement, although largely appropriated from Walter Marshall Horton, was consistent with the views King expressed in other papers and exams; that consistency indicates how King's papers could be derivative yet reliable as expressions of his views.
King's increasing tendency to acknowledge the validity of some neoorthodox criticisms of Christian liberalism may have been related to events in his personal life that contradicted Crozer's ethos of interracial harmony. On one occasion a southern white student pulled a gun on King because he mistakenly believed that King had victimized him as a prank. During the summer after his second year at Crozer, King was involved in another incident that reminded him of his vulnerability to racial discrimination when he ventured off campus and was denied service at a New Jersey tavern.
At the heart of King's search for an intellectually and emotionally satisfying religious faith was an inquiry into the nature of divinity. Having failed to experience God's presence directly though an abrupt conversion experience, King sought a set of theological ideas that would satisfy his desire for a conception of God that was consistent with his experiences. Although King was initially convinced "that the most valid conception of God is that of theism," he had found himself during his last year at Crozer "quite confused as to which definition [of God] was the most adequate." King's intellectual search culminated in Davis's course on the Philosophy of Religion when he read Edgar S. Brightman's A Philosophy of Religion and adopted personalism as his theological perspective. King's essay on Brightman's book displayed the intensity of his search for religious understanding while at the same time appropriating many of Brightman's words. "How I long now for that religious experience which Dr. Brightman so cogently speaks of throughout his book," King concluded. "It seems to be an experience, the lack of which life becomes dull and meaningless." In a remarkably candid statement for a third-year seminarian he reflected on his struggle to achieve a sense of religious contentment.
I do remember moments that I have been awe awakened; there have been times that I have been carried out of myself by something greater than myself and to that something I gave myself. Has this great something been God? Maybe after all I have been religious for a number of years, and am now only becoming aware of it.
Choosing Boston University's School of Theology because of the presence of Brightman and other leading personalists, King continued his inquiry into the nature of divinity while depending increasingly on the use of appropriated passages to formulate his synthesis of competing theological perspectives. King's Boston papers are, for the most part, competent yet routine responses to assignments, but some also include the personal digressions that enliven some of the Crozer essays. King's dissertation, "A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman," though unoriginal in its expository chapters and stylistically languid, reflected King's religious perspective as he concluded seven years of graduate study. Cautiously critical of Wieman and Tillich, King reaffirmed his commitment to personalist theology and implicitly to conceptions of God rooted in African-American religious traditions. Setting forth a theme he would develop in many later sermons, King rejected the view that God was "supra-personal"—that is, unable to be defined by the concept of personality: "It would be better by far to admit that there are difficulties with an idea we know—such as personality—than to employ a term which is practically unknown to us in our experience." Evaluating Tillich and Wieman according to the standards of personalism and the needs of the preacher, King questioned the "positive religious value" of their conceptions of God and posited instead a God who made possible "true fellowship and communion," who was "responsive to the deepest yearnings of the human heart," a God who "both evokes and answers prayer." He concluded that Tillich's and Wieman's theologies were "lacking in positive religious value. Both concepts are too impersonal to express adequately the Christian conception of God. They provide neither the conditions of true fellowship with God nor the assurance of his goodness." King, in short, evaluated the two theologians primarily on the basis of his preconceived, experiential notion of a personal God rather than on the basis of logical shortcomings in their theological writings. Even when he applauded Tillich's and Wieman's acknowledgment of "the primacy of God over everything else in the universe," his evaluation was rooted in a priori assumptions.
They do insist that religion begins with God and that man cannot have faith apart from him. They do proclaim that apart from God our human efforts turn to ashes and our sunrises into darkest night. They do suggest that man is not sufficient to himself for life, but is dependent upon God. All of this is good, and it may be a necessary corrective to a generation that has had all too muchfaith in man and all too little faith in God.
King's assumptions about God and humanity drew from homiletic traditions as well as from a distinctive African-American Social Gospel intellectual tradition represented in the ideas of Benjamin Mays, William Holmes Borders, Howard Thurman, and others.
King's struggle to come to terms with his African-American religious heritage expressed itself through his continuing preference for concepts of God that provided emotional as well as intellectual satisfaction and through his deepening acceptance of his calling as a preacher. During his first years of study at predominantly white institutions, King's enthusiasm for theological abstractions and interracial campus life may have contributed to occasional feelings of alienation from his cultural roots and seemingly preordained career path. A black pastor who observed King's performance as a participant in Crozer's fieldwork program found him only average in pulpit ability. Given his experience at Ebenezer, that area should have been a strength. The evaluator also asserted that King exhibited "an attitude of aloofness, disdain & possible snobbishness which prevent his coming to close grips with the rank and file of ordinary people. Also, a smugness that refuses to adapt itself to the demands of ministering effectively to the average Negro congregation." Notwithstanding this evaluation and his continuing uneasiness with the emotionalism and scriptural literalism he associated with African-American religion, King became effective as a preacher, serving as Ebenezer's assistant pastor during summer breaks and taking many homiletics courses at Crozer. Taylor Branch's account suggests that King gradually learned to combine scholarly sophistication with oratorical skill with the result that his fellow students "so admired his preaching technique that they packed the chapel whenever he delivered the regular Thursday student sermon, and kibitzers drifted into practice preaching classes when King was at the podium." Rather than allowing his theological studies to detract from his effectiveness as preacher, King filled voluminous notebooks with passages from his readings that would later embellish his sermons.
While King studied at Boston University, his preaching activities absorbed ever greater amounts of his time and became more central to his persona. King's Boston writings suggest that, rather than being driven by a need to resolve religious and career doubts, he had become content to refine the personalist perspective he had adopted at Crozer and to assimilate those aspects of scholarship that could be useful in preaching. When applying to Boston, King had insisted that "scholarship" was his goal and expressed the belief that theology "should be as scientific … as any other discipline," but he soon decided that he should practice his academic skills as pastor of a southern church. At Boston, while acquiring more theological erudition, King increasingly questioned the intellectual assumptions and professional values associated with academic theology. King's ardent effort to find a middle ground between academic rationalism. and the comforting verities of African-American religion can be seen in his earliest recorded sermon, "Rediscovering Lost Values," delivered in 1954 to a large black Baptist church in Detroit. After utilizing language that identified him as a student of systematic theology—"all reality has spiritual control" and "there is a God behind the process"—King employed language that resonated with the rhythms of the black Baptist tradition and evoked passionate responses from the congregation. King emphasized enduring religious values and advised against "little gods that are here today and gone tomorrow."
I'm not going to put my ultimate faith in the little gods that can be destroyed in an atomic age (Yes), but the God who has been our help in ages past (Come on), and our hope for years to come (All right), and our shelter in the time of storm (Oh yes), and our eternal home (Come on). That's the God that I'm putting my ultimate faith in (Oh yes, Come on now). That's the God that I call upon you to worship this morning ["Rediscovering Lost Values"].
King's formal academic work at Boston was guided by DeWolf, who took over as King's adviser when Brightman died. A former minister himself, DeWolf occasionally listened to King preach and appreciated his student's preaching abilities. He later judged King as "a very good student, all business, a scholar's scholar, one digging deeply to work out and think through his philosophy of religion and life." But DeWolf was a lax mentor who did not demand of King the analytical precision that might have prepared him for a career of scholarly writing. Even if DeWolf was not consciously aware of the plagiarized passages in King's essays, his obliviousness to them suggests that he asked little more of King than accurate explication and judicious synthesis. DeWolf may have conceded more than he realized when he argued, soon after King's death, against those who questioned the originality of King's religious views. Asserting that "all modern theology which is competent is 'essentially derivative,'" DeWolf even surmised that King as a public figure had derived his "system of positive theological belief" from his mentor: "occasionally I find his language following closely the special terms of my own lectures and writings."
DeWolf recommended his student for several academic positions, and King never completely abandoned his ambition to pursue an academic career. Even after deciding to become pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, King was tempted by an offer from an Illinois college. He replied that he was not considering leaving Dexter in the immediate future but might be available in few years. Yet, despite occasional expressions of interest in academic positions, King increasingly accepted his calling as an academically educated activist minister, rather than an academic theologian. By the time he received his doctorate, King had already served almost a year as Dexter's pastor; within a year, he would begin to construct a new public identity as a sophisticated advocate of social change. His identity as a preacher remained the common element linking his years as a theological student and his years as a public figure. One of only a few black ministers with a doctorate from an accredited university, King ultimately used his scholarly credentials to supplement, rather than replace, his identity as a preacher. After leaving Boston, he displayed little interest in making an original contribution to scholarly discourse. His later writings probably reflected his recognition that preaching and political advocacy were his principal gifts.
As he entered public life, King's theological training became an asset, distinguishing him from other black leaders and providing him with intellectual resources that enhanced his ability to influence white middle-class public opinion. Even his ability to appropriate texts to express his opinions was a benefit as he drafted public statements that would not require citations. His characteristic compositional method contributed to the rhetorical skills that became widely admired when King was called unexpectedly to national leadership. His appropriations of major scholarly texts satisfied his teachers and advanced his personal ambitions; his use of politicals philosophical, and literary texts—particularly those expressing the nation's democratic ideals—inspired and mobilized many Americans, thereby advancing the cause of social justice. His use, as a student and as a leader, of hegemonic or canonized cultural materials enabled him to create a transracial identity that served his own needs and those of African Americans. Deciding against a career as a theologian, King nevertheless became one of the most effective popularizers of theological ideas in the twentieth century.
In his ministry and his civil rights leadership, King continued to utilize African-American and European-American cultural resources to enhance his oratory and writing. As a public figure, King gradually became more conscious of the tension between the two traditions, occasionally contrasting them and expressing his preference for black folk religion. During the early 1960s, reflecting on the changes in his religious beliefs that had resulted from years of civil rights activism (and borrowing words from his dissertation), he acknowledged that
in the past the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category that I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. God has been profoundly real to me in recent years…. So in the truest sense of the Word, God is a living God. In him there is feeling and will, responsive to the deepest yearnings of the human heart; this God both evokes and answers prayer [Strength to Love].
The upsurge of racial militancy among blacks during the mid-1960s made King ever more conscious of the tension inherent in his roles as a racial leader and a racial diplomat. Although he left behind no diary or reflective journal that would allow scholars to measure the psychological costs of his effort to respond to the conflicting demands placed upon him, King's writings and oral statements hint that he struggled to maintain his core identity while sustaining his public personae. While the influence of the African-American religious tradition was immediately apparent in King's oratory, it was less evident in his theological writings, whose vocabulary contained few traces of African-American folk culture, linguistic patterns, or religious idiom. Yet, although King's literary persona remained largely that of a culturally assimilated religious leader, he occasionally noted the contrast between theological discourse and the emotionally evocative language of the black church. In a 1965 sermon, King advised his congregation that "we do not need to get philosophical about Him, because we get lost in the atmosphere of philosophy and theology sometimes." He compared Tillich's notion of God as "the new being" to the "poetic language" of black religion. "Sometimes when we've tried to see the meaning of Jesus we've said he's the lily of the valley,… a bright and morning star…. a rock in a weary land…. a shelter in the time of storm…. a mother to the motherless, and a father to the fatherless. At times we've just ended up saying he's my everything."
As a minister and protest leader, King benefited from his academic credentials and made effective use of the skills he gained as a graduate student. Notwithstanding his often-expressed desire to leave the pressing demands of movement leadership for the relative calm of academic life, however, he moved readily into the ministry and after leaving Dexter served as a pastor at Ebenezer until his death. His primary identity was clearly that of a preacher. In 1965, for example, while noting that he was "many things to many people: Civil Rights leader, agitator, trouble-maker and orator," King reaffirmed those facets of his personality that preceded his formal education, undergirded his public image, and encompassed his strengths and limitations as a student and a leader: "I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher. This is my being and my heritage for I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher" ["The Un-Christian Christian," Ebony 20, Aug. 1965].
King's few public recollections of his graduate school experiences did not indicate conscious concern that his student compositions might have violated academic rules. Uncomfortable with his public image, even while sometimes cultivating it, he often acknowledged his limitations and insisted that he was a product of a freedom movement greater than himself. Accepting the possibility that his flaws might detract from his public image, King understood that his historical importance ultimately derived, not from his intrinsic attributes, but from the remarkable uses he made of them.
King's borrowings from European-American and African-American religious thought supplied him with a framework for understanding the flaws in his character. He may simply have concluded that his academic credentials and theological readings had served positive purposes. In one of his last sermons, King may have spoken of his own life when he addressed the Ebenezer congregation on a passage from the book of Mark. Recounting the request of James and John to sit beside Jesus, King saw the two men's desire for recognition as understandable: "Before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those basic desires for recognition…. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade." He explained, "Somehow this warm glow we feel when we are praised, or when our name is in print, is something of the vitamin A to our ego." He warned, however, that the "drum major instinct" was dangerous if not restrained. "It causes you to lie about who you know sometimes," "to try to identify with the so-called big name people." Feelings of snobbishness could even invade the church: "The church is the one place where a Ph. D. ought to forget that he's a Ph. D." King's interpretation of the biblical story was that Jesus did not oppose the drum major instinct but instead believed that it should be put to good purposes. "If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. You don't have to have a college degree to serve…. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve." He ended the sermon by referring to his own desire for recognition, separating those aspects of his identity that were superficial from the ones that he deemed were essential. Suggesting the text for his eulogy, King advised: "Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize, that isn't important…. Tell him not to mention where I went to school. I'd like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others."
Clayborne Carson and others, "Martin Luther King, Jr., as Scholar: A Reexamination of His Theological Writings," in The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No. 1, June, 1991, pp. 93-105.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7300
[Miller is an American educator and author. In the following essay, he examines the literary, historical, and theological influences that informed King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail and his famous speech "I Have a Dream," and defends King's use of "borrowed" or adapted material.]
On August 28, 1963, one hundred fifty thousand or more demonstrators sweltered in Washington, D.C., listening to fine music from Marian Anderson, Joan Baez, and other singers. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial an endless procession of speakers droned and droned. Despite the interruption of John Lewis's impassioned eloquence, the perspiring crowd began to wilt. Then, late in the afternoon, Mahalia Jackson revived everyone. With her hat pinned firmly to her hair, the unaccompanied Queen of Gospel swayed to a rhythm entirely her own, arousing weary listeners with the slave spiritual "I Been 'Buked and I Been Scorned":
I been 'buked and I been scorned. I'm gonna tell my Lord when I get home Just how long you've been treating me wrong.
Here Jackson merged her voice with the narrator of the lyrics, identifying her experiences with those of slaves. Through this song, the slaves' indignity became her indignity and that of thousands of blacks hearing her, all of whom had been 'buked and scorned. The slaves' cry became her cry, the slaves' protest her protest.
Following this spirited performance, King stepped to the microphone to launch the profoundly paradoxical "I Have a Dream." Wearing his normal funereal suit, white shirt, and black tie, he, like Jackson, evoked the woebegone past to demand a sparkling future. He cited Jefferson, alluded to Lincoln, and embraced Old Testament prophets and Christianity, presenting an entire inventory of patriotic themes and images typical of Fourth of July oratory. But, despite these nostalgic references, the first half of "I Have a Dream" did not celebrate a dream. It catalogued a nightmare. King damned an intolerable status quo that demeaned the Negro, who existed "on a lonely island of poverty" and was an "exile in his own land."
Then King merged his voice with others. He enlisted Amos as a spokesman for his cause:
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We cannot be satisfied as long as our bodies … cannot find lodging in the motels of the highways or the hotels of the cities…. No … we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Who are the "we" of this passage? The devotees of civil rights—the disenfranchised blacks whom King represented. But the "we" of the last sentence includes more than blacks. This line harnesses a famous exclamation from an Old Testament prophet—Amos's cry "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream!" So Amos is also speaking here as King merges Amos's persona with his own. This union reflects back to the immediately preceding sentences: the "we" who cannot be satisfied until justice rolls down are the same "we" who seek lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. The voice of King/Amos calls for justice to run like a river and for Congress to open the dam by mandating integration. The words of Amos gave an unimpeachably authoritative tone to King's demands.
In the most famous passage of all his oratory, King again engaged in voice merging:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up…. I have a dream that my four little children will one day … not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!… I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
Who is the "I" here? The "I" is surely King, the father of four young children. But who is the "I" of the last sentence? The dream is not simply King's dream. Isaiah initially sketched the scene of valley exalted, mountains laid low, and rough places made plain—impossible geography symbolizing the coming of the kingdom of God. Jesus reaffirmed this powerful conception by quoting Isaiah's visionary language. Then Handel enshrined it in the lyrics of the Messiah, the most famous long piece of Christian music. Uniting his persona with those of Amos, Isaiah, Jesus, and Handel's narrator, King built his identity by evoking a sanctified past. Underlying this process of self-making is the typology of slave religion and the folk pulpit. King assumes that personality reasserts itself in readily understandable forms governing all human history. Scripture, music, and sermons describe and illuminate these patterns.
Although these forms are reliable, they can be flexible as well. Following the "I have a dream" litany, King again evoked Biblical eschatology by reworking imagery from the prophet Daniel: "With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." Interpreting a famous dream of King Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel describes a stone that smashes a figure made of precious metals, iron, and clay. Hewn from a mountain by God, the stone symbolizes God's ideal kingdom that destroys all petty, earthly kingdoms and itself endures forever. In King's speech, however, human beings extract the stone from the mountain without waiting passively for God to create the new kingdom entirely by himself. Represented by the stone from the mountain, the arrival of Daniel's ideal kingdom coincides with the arrival of Isaiah's realm of valleys upliftedand mountains levelled. King expertly merged the mountain symbols from Daniel and Isaiah into a single image of a perfected community. He also merged his dream with Nebuchadnezzar's dream.
Joining King's choir of voices was the most distinguished of all possible members: God Almighty. King orchestrated the divine voice in several ways. One was through his status as a Baptist minister. (Six years earlier he literally donned his pulpit robe to address a crowd of twenty-five thousand gathered at the same spot.) He also expressed God's Word by reiterating the vision of the prophets and Jesus, who spoke directly for God. And he used the cadences of the black pulpit to heighten his demands.
He began by invoking patriotic authority—the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and the Emancipation Proclamation. Religion did not enter the speech overtly until Amos spoke at the halfway point. Like other folk preachers, King here (and elsewhere) began to accentuate rhythm and vocal contrasts in the middle of his presentation. When the words of Amos emerged, so did the vocal dynamics of the folk pulpit. At exactly the same point he offered a cornucopia of rhetorical figures, packing together seven series of repeating phrases (e.g., "We are not satisfied …" and "I have a dream …"). His chockablock use of these parallelisms added another religious element, for such sequences were standard practice in the folk pulpit.
By enlisting the divine voice, King did more than create a homiletic self. Just as C.L. Franklin assumed the mantle of a Biblical prophet, so did King in "I Have a Dream." His expert application of Biblical prophecy through folk preachers' techniques signified that God spoke through him.
As he catalogued an American nightmare, King essentially argued that the finest secular presences, including Jefferson and Lincoln, had failed miserably. The "architects of our republic" offered a "promissory note" that pledged liberty. But for blacks the note proved "a bad check," a check "marked insufficient funds." By introducing divine authority after secular authority, which had proven inadequate, this new Biblical prophet suggested that an impatient God would now overrule secular forces and install justice without delay. When God ordains for justice to roll down like waters, the flood must eventually cross the Mason-Dixonline. When valleys are exalted, racism will end. When the stone of hope emerges from the mountain, it will smash the flawed kingdom of segregation. Why? Because, in the holistic vision of slaves, God redeems his children in both the next world and this world, for in the end the sacred and secular worlds are inseparable.
As usual King practiced voice merging in his conclusion. The prophet adjusted and refined a passage from his acquaintance and fellow black pastor, Archibald Carey. Consider the final portion of Carey's 1952 address to the Republican National Convention:
We, Negro Americans, sing with all loyal Americans:
My country 'tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, Land of the Pilgrims' pride From every mountainside Let freedom ring!
That's exactly what we mean—from every mountain side, let freedom ring. Not only from the Green Mountains and White Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire; not only from the Catskills of New York; but from the Ozarks in Arkansas, from the Stone Mountain in Georgia, from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia—let it ring not only for the minorities of the United States, but for … the disinherited of all the earth—may the Republican Party, under God, from every mountainside, LET FREEDOM RING!
Here the "My" of "My country" is both the narrator of Samuel Smith's "America" and Carey and "all Negro Americans." Through voice merging, Carey enlists the first verse of "America" as an agent not for self-satisfaction but for radical political change. He unites his identity with the ultra-patriotic voice of our unofficial national anthem.
In his peroration King refined Carey's words:
This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country 'tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, Land of the Pilgrim's pride, From every mountainside Let freedom ring! So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania…. Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill in Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
This entire litany extends the lyrics of "America." King used "Let freedom ring"—the last three words from the song—to establish his concluding series. By initiating each thought, these three words organize the entire sequence. This extension is metaphorical as well as stylistic, for the narrator of "America," Carey, and King compare freedom to a mighty bell whose peal will echo across every mountain. In effect King composed another verse for the anthem as he merged his voice with "America." Surely the "My" of "My country" indicates King and "all of God's children" as well as the narrative voice of the song. He also used this sequence to apply Isaiah's dream of valleys turned upside down. In the new landscape of Isaiah/King, even the hills and molehills of Mississippi, a low-lying state, will be exalted into mountains prodigious enough to echo the peal of freedom.
Hailing Isaiah's and Carey's utopian future, King envisions a day when everyone will dismantle social barriers and merge voices by singing "America." Here he simultaneously engages in voice merging and reflects on a future of massive voice merging that will collapse all racial distinctions. He thereby takes the harmonious, heavenly vision of folk religion and sets it down squarely on earth.
In his final sentence King reinforced this entire rhetorical process by quoting yet another source:
… when we allow freedom to ring … from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholic, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we're free at last!"
The "We" of "we're free at last" is not only King and his ensemble of authoritative voices. "We" are all people—blacks and whites, Jews and Christians—who experience the long-awaited coming of the kingdom of God. Reinvigorating the sacred time of folk religion, King announced that Isaiah's prophecy will finally come true: the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh will see it together. All flesh, all human beings will hold hands, merge voices in song, and celebrate the fulfilled vision of slaves, Jefferson, Lincoln, Amos, Isaiah, Daniel, Jesus, Handel's narrator, Carey, and King. Through sacred time, all their hopes and longings will fuse into the same hope and the same longing, which will finally be satisfied.
Here King again simultaneously engaged in voice merging and explained his hope for massive voice merging in an eschatological future of racial justice. Through the language of his inclusive, harmonious choir, he projected the end of history, when brotherhood will triumph, identities will converge, and sacred time will reign. Justice will pour down like waters, valleys will become mountains, and the stone hewn from the mountain will smash all racist, earthly kingdoms. On this day Americans will finally create themselves and their nation.
While "I Have a Dream" is a great folk sermon, some of King's speeches are not folk sermons at all. In sharp contrast to this speech is a largely ghostwritten anti-war address delivered in April 1967 at Riverside Church, the institution of [Harry Emerson] Fosdick and McCracken. An important presentation, "A Time to Break Silence" was King's first fully publicized attack on the war in Vietnam.Before reviving McCracken's view that only true Chris-tianity could defeat Communism, King provided an extended political analysis of the history of Vietnam and a detailed argument about Ho Chi Minh and his followers. He then reminded listeners of the deadly effects of American firepower and argued that the majority of the enemy, the National Liberation Front, were nationalists, not Communists.
While King began by alluding to his career, he dispensed with his usual argument from authority. Apart from a brief mention of the good Samaritan, he made no significant references to the Bible. Nor did he invoke great American presidents. Refusing to argue deductively, he did not claim that all war violates Christian principles. Instead, his argument succeeded or failed on the merits of his inductive assessment of the history of Vietnam, the intentions of the Viet Cong, and the appropriateness of American intervention. Thus "A Time to Break Silence" clearly embodied an inductive argument replete with inductive logic. In this respect it resembles several of his other ghostwritten speeches.
By contrast "I Have a Dream" and virtually all of King's other memorable speeches operate by way of a deductive structure similar to that of his sermons. In "I Have a Dream" King argues from the authority of Jefferson, Lincoln, "America," and the Bible—all of which he applies deductively to the situation of black America. According to the logic of "I Have a Dream," segregation is wrong, but not for reasons unveiled in a detailed analysis, which never surfaces in the speech. Rather segregation is wrong because it eviscerates the Emancipation Proclamation, scandalizes Jefferson's vision, violates Amos's demand, stymies Isaiah's longings, and contaminates the freedom celebrated in "America." Essentially "I Have a Dream" contends that segregation is wrong because it prevents the highest deductive truths of the nation and the Bible from governing human relations. Enacting these deductive truths means eradicating segregation.
The deductive nature of "I Have a Dream" is obvious not only in contrast to "A Time to Break Silence" but also in the context of the other speechifying at the March on Washington. Virtually all other addresses at the March concentrated on inductive appeals. In his censored but still militant speech, John Lewis talked of a pregnant activist in Albany, Georgia, whose brutal beating took the life of her fetus. Lewis and other speakers related other recent events and complained about the congressional bottleneck preventing passage of civil rights legislation. Identifying culprits of injustice, Lewis named names and wondered aloud about creating a new political party.
By contrast, "I Have a Dream" alluded to no recent incidents. Unlike Lewis and the other orators, King mentioned not a single, living person by name and referred only to his four children and to one other specific, living human being—the governor of Alabama. Unlike the array of other speakers, who discussed the importance of a civil rights bill, King made no direct reference to Congress or to the pending legislation, which became the most important civil rights law in American history. Only by considering the context of "I Have a Dream"—not by listening to any of its lines—can anyone even tell that the speech has anything to do with John Kennedy's civil rights proposal.
Instead of talking historical particulars in the manner of "A Time to Break Silence" and other ghostwritten speeches, "I Have a Dream" and King's other sermonic speeches repeatedly enunciate overarching, deductive principles and insist that these principles demand the repeal of segregation. The argument of King's most eloquent speeches owes nothing to formal Western philosophy. The argument of his sermonic speeches—including all his spectacular oratory—is never philosophical or inductive. Rather, the argument is invariably deductive, and stands as a variation of sermonic argument.
To make such arguments King often borrowed from himself, moving material freely from speeches to sermons and sermons to speeches. The strikingly similar appeals of his memorable speeches and his sermons enabled him to interchange material through his mix-and-match method of composing. Because he generally used deductive argument in both sacred and secular orations, most of his material fit equally well into speeches and sermons, which is why his speeches seem like sermons and his sermons seem like speeches.
While many would rank King as the greatest. American preacher of the century, one could easily wonder how he could become a stellar homilist and essayist while also directing a social revolution. He managed to become both the most accomplished preacher and the most successful reformer of the century partly because he did not begin the process of fusing the roles of preacher, theologian, and activist. Unlike white religious leaders, he preached by protesting, protested by preaching, and wrote theology by stepping into a jail cell. His successful theology consists of his sermons, speeches, civil rights essays, and political career—not his formal theological work. Had he accepted the white division of theology, homiletics, and politics, he never would have gone to jailto gain the authority to speak. By rejecting white models, he achieved the apotheosis of his own community's understanding of religious leadership, an understanding the nation came to cherish.
Nowhere is this black conception of theology more evident than in Letter from Birmingham Jail. Along with the Sermon on the Porch, the essay is more completely inseparable from the civil rights movement than any other example of King's discourse. Indeed a better match between words and deeds is difficult to imagine. King perfectly tailored his letter to the particulars of Birmingham in 1963, including its recent mayoral election and an unsolved rash of bombings. The principles outlined in Letter mandated his trip to jail, and a stay in jail mandated the explanation supplied by Letter. Getting arrested set the stage for Letter, Letter set the stage for future arrests.
Yet, as King masterfully performed the simultaneous roles of preacher, theologian, and activist, he wrote an essay that, unlike his other discourse, actually reflects his study of Euro-American philosophy and theology. Letter also manifests the powerful and more familiar influences of the black folk pulpit, Christian Century, Fosdick, [Harris] Wofford, and two other religious writers. All these influences converge in this extraordinary essay.
Although King's epistolary essay was inspired by Paul, his more immediate stimulant was Christian Century. In 1959, six months after joining the editorial staff of the journal, he informed its editor that he wanted to write "occasional articles and letters" that could reach "the Protestant leadership of our country." The editor agreed that his readership would appreciate "an occasional personal letter which you could write." Six months later the editor gave more explicit instructions, telling King and his other editors-at-large to write Christmas letters "in such a form that they can actually be sent to the people to whom they are addressed as well as appearing in the columns of the magazine." The recipients responded with a set of public letters printed in the Christmas issue of the journal. Like Letter, these letters ostensibly focused on their real-life addressees but actually on readers of Christian Century. Like Letter, some of them combined a cordial and respectful tone with forceful criticism of their addressees. Although King did not write a public letter on this occasion, he did so a few years later in Birmingham.
Ostensibly serving as King's response to eight moderate clergy, Letter first surfaced in Christian Century, Liberation, and Christianity and Crisis—three left-of-center journals—and in pamphlets disseminated by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and another leftist, pacifist organization, the American Friends Service Committee. Soon afterwards other readers encountered King's epistle in The Progressive, Ebony, and other liberal periodicals. Publication in the New York Post and the San Francisco Chronicle further expanded King's readership. (He claimed that "nearly a million copies … have been widely circulated in churches of most of the major denominations.") He also installed the instantly popular essay as the centerpiece for Why We Can't Wait, his longer account of the Birmingham movement.
Given that King wrote Letter for Christian Century and other left-of-center outlets, one can say that its original and primary audience was not the ostensible audience of eight moderate clergy. Nor was it other moderate readers. Instead, King carefully crafted a letter that could actually be mailed to its addressees while engaging the readers of Christian Century and other liberal Protestants. The progressive ministers and laity who raved about King's sermons at Cathedral of St. John, Riverside Church, the Chicago Sunday Evening Club, and elsewhere were the same people who subscribed to Christian Century. Because this journal had promulgated racial equality not merely for years, but for several decades prior to Letter, the vast majority of its subscribers wholeheartedly agreed with King's attack on segregation long before he wrote his essay. Had the editors of the journal failed to sympathize with King, they would not have published ["Pilgrimage to Non-Violence"] several years prior to Letter. Nor would they have welcomed him as an editor-at-large every year from 1958 until a year after the publication of Letter. Equally sympathetic were those who read Letter. in other liberal forums. Although the essay eventually reached large numbers of moderates, King's main purpose was to convert the converted and reinforce their earlier support. He carefully preached to the choir, targeting an audience of liberals by asking them to invoke the role of moderates. The essay was so well written that it reached a large, spillover audience of moderates as well.
All readers perused an essay composed under trying conditions. By every account, King entered Birmingham jail with nothing to read and with no notes or examples of his own writing. However, he remembered earlier speeches and sermons and insinuated several familiar passages into his essay, including material he had originally obtained from sources. Because he relied on his memory—not directly on texts—the borrowed passages in Letter do not resemble his models as closely as usual. several of his sources can be clearly identified.
For his arguments about nonconformity, he recalled his own sermon "Transformed Nonconformist," including passages that came from Fosdick's Hope of the World and from a sermon by H.H. Crane:
FOSDICK: We Christians were intended to be that [creative] minority. We were to be the salt of the earth, said Jesus. We were to be the light of the world. We were to be the leaven in the lump of the race…. That is joining the real church … ecclesia … a minority selected from the majority…. There was a time … when Christianity was very powerful. Little groups of men and women were scattered through the Roman Empire…. They were far less than two per cent and the heel of persecution was often on them, but they flamed with a conviction….
Do you remember what Paul called them … "We are a colony of heaven," he said … [Christianity] stopped ancient curses like infanticide. It put an end to the … gladitorial shows.
CRANE: Consider first the thermometer. Essentially, it … records or registers its environments…. Instead of being conformed to this world, [man] can transform it…. For when he is what his Maker obviously intended him to be, he is not a thermometer; he is a thermostat…. there is a thermostatic type of religion … and its highest expression is called vita Christianity.
KING: There was a time when the church was very powerful…. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power … immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace"…. But the Christians pressed on in the conviction that they were a "colony of heaven"…. Small in number, they were big in commitment…. By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladitorial contests. Perhaps I must turn … to the inner spiritual church as the true ekklesia and hope of the world. These [ministers who support civil rights] have been the leaven in the lump of the race. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the Gospel….
King here eschewed the King James version of the Bible, which he normally used, and followed Fosdick in quoting from the 1922 Moffatt translation of Philippians 3:20 ("We are a colony of heaven"). Significantly, the King James translation of this verse—"For our conversation is in heaven"—fails to provide any Biblical support for nonconformity. Here King owes a debt not only to Fosdick's lines, but also to Fosdick's choice of a specific scripture and a specific translation of that scripture. This translation contrasts substantively not only with the King James edition, but with almost all other available English translations.
Turning to another familiar source, King marshalled his arguments for nonviolence and civil disobedience by refashioning ideas and language from two of Wofford's speeches. He reworded a passage from Wofford that he had used earlier in Stride:
WOFFORD: … [Civil disobedience] involves the highest possible respect for the law. If we secretly violated the law, or tried to evade it, or violently tried to overthrow it, that would be undermining the idea of law, Gandhi argued. But by openly and peacefully disobeying an unjust law and asking for the penalty, we are saying that we so respect the law that when we think it is so unjust that in conscience we cannot obey, then we belong in jail until that law is changed.
KING: In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law…. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.
King also paraphrased Wofford's citation of Socrates, Augustine, and Aquinas as proponents of civil disobedience and Wofford's call for nonviolent gadflies.
For part of his analysis of segregation, King turned to George Kelsey, his professor at Morehouse, whose remarks on segregation proved useful on several occasions, In Stride, "A Challenge to Churches and Synagogues," and Letter, King sometimes reiterated and sometimes adapted passages from Kelsey:
KELSEY: … segregation is itself utterly un-Christian. It is established on pride, fear, and falsehood…. It is unbrotherly, impersonal, a complete denial of the "I-Thou" relationship, and a complete expression of the "I-It" relation. Two segregated souls never meet in God.
Compare King's statement in "A Challenge to the Churches and Synagogues":
… segregation is morally wrong and sinful. It is established on pride, hatred, and falsehood. It is unbrotherly and impersonal. Two segregated souls never meet in God…. To use the words of Martin Buber, segregation substitutes an "I-it" relationship for the "I-thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.
King distilled this analysis in Letter:
Segregation, to use the terminology of … Martin Buber, substitutes an "I-it" relationship for an "I-thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.
For his affirmation of interdependence, King borrowed another passage from Fosdick. Fosdick's "We are intermeshed in an inescapable mutuality" became King's "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality."
The black church originally supplied King with ideas about nonconformity, nonviolence, segregation, interdependence, and other themes trumpeted in Letter. Invoking sacred time, he compared himself to the prophets and Paul and talked about Jesus, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Lincoln, and Jefferson as though they shared his cell block in Birmingham. Wielding his customary argument from authority, he also cited Socrates, Augustine, Aquinas, Tillich, Niebuhr, T.S. Eliot, and three Old Testament heroes. He skillfully wove each of these references into the fabric of an astute analysis of segregation and civil disobedience in Birmingham.
While King drew on familiar sources for the content of Letter, the intricate structure of his argument reflects his exposure to famous Euro-American philosophers, whose works offer many precedents of fine-spun philosophical persuasion. Christian Century and black and white sermons provide far fewer examples of the carefully layered appeals that structure Letter.
King's essay can be seen as an exemplary, modern version of an oration from ancient Greece or Rome. Basically Letter follows the steps of a typical classical speech: introduction, proposition, division, confirmation, refutation, and peroration. His tendency to move his argument forward through skillful digressions is a standard classical strategy. Offering a modest variation of classical form, he packed the bulk of his argument into his refutation, effectively refuting both major and minor premises of the eight clergymen's implicit syllogisms. He practiced "multipremise refutation" by expressing disappointment at being labelled an extremist, then folding that argument into a vigorous defense of certain forms of extremism. His "tone of sadness and compulsion" and expert understatement (e. g., "I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department") also enjoy precedents in classical rhetoric. By registering his humility, his understatements paradoxically buttress his claims instead of undermining them.
Layered philosophical argument is just as crucial to Letter as the black conception of religious roles that made it possible in the first place. Christian Century, white sermons, and black folk religion also inform King's essay in powerful ways. Letter masterfully interlaces themes of Fosdick, Wofford, Crane, and Kelsey; invokes multiple authorities; reinvigorates the sacred time of the folk pulpit; and supplies rich Pauline allusions and other Biblical echoes. King carefully subsumed each of these appeals within a larger inductive argument consisting of box-within-a-box, multipremise refutation—an argument as lucid as it is intricate. His keen awareness of the readership of Christian Century enabled him to choose truisms from appropriate authorities (including Tillich, Niebuhr, and Martin Buber) that would fit suitably into his larger scheme.
King's study of philosophy and theology during his years at Crozer and Boston accounts for the classical argument that structures his essay. Classical rhetoric directly or indirectly influenced every masterpiece of Western philosophy and theology that King's professors assigned him to read. Though he often expressed the major themes of Letter—sometimes with remarkably similar wording—at no other time did he ever summon its rigorously ordered, predominantly inductive logic and controlled understatement.
The uniqueness of the essay results primarily from his decision to go to jail, which reflects Biblical and African-American precedents for combining the roles of preacher, theologian, and agitator. His isolation in Birmingham jail—an isolation he never again experienced—enabled him to translate into popular terms the kind of argument he learned in the academy.
Facing the task of translating black orality into print, King, like many others, began borrowing sermons early in his career. Adopting a text from nineteenth-century preacher Phillips Brooks helped him land the pulpit of one of the finest black churches in Alabama. Beginning his political career, King continued to borrow sermons. From Northern white liberals and moderates, he received nothing but accolades. When he travelled to the Cathedral of St. John, the Chicago Sunday Evening Club, Riverside Church, and the National Cathedral, congregations applauded his sermons on nonconformity, fear, and an array of other extremely familiar topics. No one groaned when he wielded quotations from Khayyam, Bowring, Shakespeare, Swinburne, Lowell, and others that many had heard before. On the contrary, white churchgoers almost invariably greeted him not merely with approbation, but with an overwhelming adulation reserved for no one else in Protestantism. African Americans also thrilled to King's addresses.
Nor did preachers complain when King borrowed their sermons. Warmly welcoming him to Riverside Church, McCracken repeatedly negotiated a spot on King's jammed schedule and always expressed exuberant pleasure at King's appearance. He did so after King borrowed his sermon about Communism and published much of it in both "Pilgrimage" and Strength. Buttrick served as an editorial associate for Pulpit the year before King published there a sermon based on Buttrick's explication of a parable. There is no record that Buttrick ever complained about King's sermon. Hamilton's widow, Florence Hamilton, declares that her husband "had great respect and admiration for King." Archibald Carey continued his friendship with King after King had adapted a portion of Carey's speech for "I Have a Dream." The nonminister Harris Wofford may speak for several of King's sources when he states that he would be "complimented" if King borrowed his lines.
King's language impressed whites not in spite of his borrowing but because of it. Much of his material resonated with white Protestants precisely because they had heard it before. Repetition aids memory: if people hear a tune often enough, they will begin humming it themselves. Listeners remember lines from folk sermons partly because preachers keep repeating their best lines. King's listeners retained his ideas and phrases more easily because the familiar strains of his sermons made them more memorable.
King also validated himself by offering forms of argument that whites had already internalized and by propounding themes that they already understood and respected. He routinely supplied surefire, doctrinally sound sermons with recipe-perfect proportions of Biblical exegesis, application, quotations, illustrations, and the like. Borrowing enabled him to foolproof his sermons against theological error, weak themes, faulty structure, and other mistakes. Had he instead supplied sermons with profoundly original content, he would never have legitimized his radical tactic of civil disobedience and his radical goals of ending racism, poverty, and war. Much too strange and much too radical to gain acceptance, he would have been dismissed as a black Eugene Debs, a black Norman Thomas, or another W.E.B. DuBois or Malcolm X.
Borrowing also let King escape the restrictions of the clock and therein become a Houdini of time. This Houdini could elude the straitjacket of twenty-four-hour days by undertaking a variety of activities at the same moment. He could simultaneously lead demonstrations; administer a large organization; raise tens of thousands of dollars; tell presidents what to do; serve time in jail; maintain a huge correspondence; and publish scores of essays as well as several books. While enchanting listeners in Cleveland, he could simultaneously direct a world famous march from Selma. He could mediate a crisis with the mayor in Chicago while confronting "Black Power" on a Mississippi highway. This ubiquitous leader could magically advise senators, write a column, publish an essay, rally voters, placate unruly staffers, preach a sermon, and comfort a church janitor—all in a single day.
Barnstorming the nation as a Houdini of time became possible only because King consulted sources and thereby foolproofed his discourse. No one can consistently compose flawless sermons without spending a gargantuan amount of time doing so. If forced to construct sermons entirely from scratch, he would have had no choice but to spend far more time writing and far less time engaged in other vital activities.
King's most grueling endeavor was a dramatic oratorical marathon that can only be compared to a non-stop, never-ending presidential campaign. Speaking on two or three hundred occasions each year, he reached hundreds of thousands of listeners in the flesh. He dedicated himself to this nostalgically old-fashioned, person-to-person communication because it was the best way to enlist support. Had he chosen not to borrow sermons, he would have communicated in person to far fewer people, seriously diluting the impact of his message.
Moreover, when King abandoned his sources, his words often fell flat. His frequently ghostwritten policy speeches—such as "A Time to Break Silence"—resemble the speechifying of Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and other liberal Democrats. Like them, he filled his policy statements with detailed political analysis, which he omitted from his sermons and sermonic speeches. Just as the oratory of Humphrey and McGovern failed to seduce voters, his policy addresses never received the enthusiasm commanded by his sermonic oratory. By contrast, his sermons always succeeded. So did almost all of his sermonic speeches, only small portions of which were ghostwritten. For that reason, he mainly cycled and recycled sermonic material—not ghostwritten language—as he conducted his marathon speaking tour over a twelve-year period.
Merging black and white homiletics, he subordinated Fosdick's entire worldview to the slaves' grand theme of deliverance. He did so by radically changing the context of borrowed themes. Unlike others, he was never content merely to preach to well-dressed Northern liberals gazing at Biblical stories frozen in sculptured stone and dazzling stained glass. Instead, he baptized the huge congregation commanded by Fosdick and [J. Wallace] Hamilton into the massive political movement imagined by W.E.B. Du-Bois and A. Philip Randolph. Releasing energy from the cozy, closeted sanctuaries of Northern churches, he electrified the tense streets of Alabama. Through the folk procedures of voice merging and self-making, he simultaneously propelled, intensified, and interpreted a huge national drama that Fosdick, Hamilton, and Buttrick could never have staged. Like the spirituals and gospel songs whose lyrics he wove into his oratory, he offered balm to soothe and lightning to energize both participants and spectators of that drama. No one could have predicted that a group of liberal, white sermons would help trigger a Second Reconstruction. By directing a large-scale assault on segregation, he transformed each of his sermons into a powerful political act—something that could never be said about Fosdick, Buttrick, or Hamilton. He turned their iron ore into gold.
Through skillfully choreographed political confrontations, King repeatedly tested the clichés of Jefferson ("All men are created equal"), the Bible ("You shall reap what you sow"), and progressive pulpits ("Truth crushed to earth will rise again") against the billy clubs of Southern police and the hatred of recalcitrant governors. He essentially argued that, should Bull Connor and George Wallace win, they would expose noble American truths as sheer sentimentality. In that event, the Revolution of 1776 (with its "unalienable rights"), America ("sweet land of liberty"), Christ's agape ("Love your enemies"), and the Christian law of history ("Unearned suffering is redemptive") would be entirely refuted, and injustice would reign forever and ever.
Similarly King tested dust and divinity, Jesus's parables, antidotes to fear, and an entire array of other orthodox and standard themes. If racists prevailed, they would disprove an entire Christian perspective, exposing a widely shared world picture as an expression of utter naïveté. By tossing boilerplate sermons into a cauldron of disruptive confrontation, King measured an entire worldview against the bomb on his porch, the hoses and dogs of Bull Connor, and the dynamite that killed four girls in Birmingham. He thereby brought to life a language that had never before spoken decisively to power brokers and presidents.
King's borrowing made it difficult for audiences to reject his leadership without also rejecting a nostalgic universe not yet shattered by Darwin, Freud, and Einstein. By tracing a vision of love and justice shared by millions, he established himself as the exponent of order and stigmatized his adversaries as promoters of chaos. They had overturned God's justice by institutionalizing racial oppression. For this reason, in King's rhetorical universe, cosmic justice-necessitated disruption, and only a revolution could achieve true stability.
King adapted material in a highly creative way. No matter what he borrowed or how often, after leaving Boston University, he managed never to sound stilted or artificial. Instead, he paradoxically, but invariably, sounded exactly like himself. His long training in the folk pulpit accounts for his extraordinary ability to use others' language to become himself. This training also explains why his audiences never objected to his borrowing and why an entire generation of scholars failed to guess that he mined sources frequently. His skill in transporting procedures of folk preaching into print ensured that his borrowed lines fit his persona more closely than did the words of ghostwriters….
Paradoxically King became himself by reviving and politicizing the words of others as he choreographed a grand protest against the indescribable horror, brutality, and tragedy of segregation. Borrowing beloved sermonic themes meant defining the current struggle as a drama that God would satisfactorily resolve in his reliable, beneficent universe. Borrowing also helped King emerge as an authoritative public intellectual who could simultaneously participate in the political fray and stand philosophically above it. Foolproofing his discourse enabled him to articulate the overarching principles of the movement while towering above its day-to-day frustrations. His magisterial public persona helped valorize the struggle.
Whoever would condemn King's borrowing necessarily assumes that King would have persuaded whites just as easily had he originated every word out of his mouth. But the original, sublime eloquence of Frederick Douglass, DuBois, [James] Farmer, [Fannie Lou] Hamer, and a host of other blacks long before and throughout the civil rights struggle never changed white people's minds. Had King composed original language, as they did, there is no evidence that he would have been any more persuasive than they were. Certainly he thought he had found the most persuasive words available.
Keith D. Miller, in his Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Its Sources, The Free Press, 1992, 282 p. [The excerpts of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s work used here were originally published in his A Testament of Hope, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1986.]