It is the voice that one remembers most: that rich, deep baritone, full of controlled intensity, reason, and passion combined, a voice that loved words and the sounds they made, and that for a few short years held the nation in thrall. Read some of the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and they do not remain in the mind for long; hear them, and one can hardly forget them. It is likely that few people remember even a phrase from Louis Farrakhan’s two-hour speech at the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., in October, 1995; yet King’s fourteen-minute “I Have a Dream” speech, given in front of the Lincoln Memorial in August, 1963, lives on in memory as one of the most inspiring, and most quoted, speeches ever given by an American. In 1993, President Bill Clinton called it “the greatest speech in my lifetime.”
Richard Lischer has performed an invaluable service for all those who were and still are enthralled by King’s oratory. Much of The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Word That Moved America is based on analyses of unedited audiotapes and transcripts of King’s sermons and speeches, particularly those given in African American churches and at mass meetings. Some of these recordings were made by police surveillance units in Birmingham and Selma and have not been examined by biographers before. (Ironically, these taped testimonies of the power of King’s oratory and the celebratory spirit of the mass meetings were found among the collected papers of the notorious Birmingham police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor.) According to Lischer, it is these speeches that reveal King’s true voice as a preacher, not the sanitized versions that King preached to white congregations or that appeared in print. The latter, published sermons such as those collected in Strength to Love (1963) were polished up in order to give them more general appeal, but the effect was to dilute them to the point that they seemed no more than a collection of liberal platitudes. In contrast, King preached a vibrant, distinctively African American gospel, rooted in the traditions of the black churches in which he grew up and in which he preached all of his adult life.
Lischer’s approach to King is similar to that followed by King’s biographer Taylor Branch inParting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (1988) and by Stephen Oates in his well-known biography Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1982). It represents a step away from many earlier studies that overintellectualized King and placed too much emphasis on his debt to the liberal Protestant theological tradition—for example, his engagement with thinkers such as Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich. Yet Lischer is careful to avoid a tilt to another unbalanced view of King. Unlike some critics, he does not claim that King’s embrace of such mainstream theological positions was essentially a pretense, undertaken to align himself and his movement with white America. On the contrary, according to Lischer, in his graduate studies King genuinely assimilated those intellectual influences, and they shaped the religious activist aspect of his mission. Lischer further argues that it is in the interplay of two languages—the one King inherited from the black church and the one he acquired in theological school—that the key to his achievement lies.
The first part of The Preacher King explores King’s formation in the African Baptist church, beginning in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where his father preached and he was the precocious “preacher’s kid.” Here King first absorbed the pattern of call and response between preacher and congregation, a reciprocal pattern by which the preacher draws energy from his audience and energizes them in return. He also absorbed the two main strands of black church tradition. These were, first, the Sustainers, who ministered to the needs of an oppressed people but did not try to alter social conditions, and second, the Reformers, who, like King’s own grandfather, used the pulpit as a means to fight for racial freedom. Lischer examines the roles played by particular individuals in mediating this tradition to the young King. These included not only his father but also Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College, where King studied as an undergraduate; Gardner C. Taylor, the greatest black preacher of the day, who became King’s model of an ideal preacher; and J. Pius Barbour, an- other Baptist preacher who influenced King while the latter was studying at Crozer Seminary.
Although King did not acknowledge in public the influence of this black tradition, it supplied him with a theological scheme in which sin was followed by suffering, which in turn led to redemption and reconciliation. He also learned to acquire the prophetic rage that is peculiar to those who embody the sufferings of an oppressed people and to nourish his fascination with language, since the black church took delight in verbal performance as a manifestation of the power of the spoken word.
(The entire section is 2086 words.)