Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The sermons and speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., mirrored the southern black preaching tradition that surrounded his childhood in Atlanta. King’s father, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr., was the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and a seminal influence in shaping his son’s commitment to racial justice and his confidence that carefully chosen words were crucial to attaining it.

As a boy, King witnessed many occasions when his father and mother refused to be intimidated by segregationist policies; his parents always linked their resistance to moral values. Above all, young King developed a passion for learning to express himself with “big words” such as his father and his maternal grandfather, the Reverend Adam Daniel Williams, before him delivered from the pulpit at Ebenezer. The cadence and forceful tones of this southern black preaching style stimulated the future civil rights leader’s mind before he could read and remained a decisive element in his public career. Although he did not plan to become a minister, his experience at Morehouse College changed his thinking and led him to further study in theology and philosophy at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University and prepared him for his first pastorate in Montgomery, Alabama. There, he emerged as an effective civil rights spokesman during the historic bus boycott of 1955-1956. One major result was a long series of speeches and sermons, including several that have been published in many languages that are considered to be models of rhetorical effectiveness and important contributions to African American social thought.

King’s first speech to a national audience was his “Give Us the Ballot” address during the Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., in May, 1957. By then King was taking an important place among such familiar civil rights leaders as Asa Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and the Reverend Charles Kensie Steele; the “Give Us the Ballot” speech propelled him further as a major advocate of civil rights. Although some considered its judgment premature, after the speech New York’s Amsterdam News hailed King as the “number one leader of sixteen million Negroes” and said that “the people will follow him anywhere.”

His rhythmic repetition of the phrase “give us the ballot” had counterparts in several of his most influential addresses of the following decade. In August, 1963, during the massive March on Washington by some 250,000 people in behalf of jobs and freedom, King delivered his best-known speech. This time the pivotal phrase was “I have a dream,” as King surveyed the broad landscape of African American history in the United States and expressed his hope for a better future. The next year, he modified his style somewhat in his speech in Oslo, Norway, as he accepted the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, but his quintessential rhetorical form was reflected in his thematic emphasis upon peace both as a possibility and as a necessity for survival of the human race. It was a speech marked by King’s frequent proclamations of faith in his vision for the world, modified at each change of topic to fit the specific point such as world peace or economic justice. “I refuse to accept the cynical notion,” he affirmed, “that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into a hell of thermonuclear destruction.” With equal fervor, he told the crowd of marchers who gathered in Montgomery on March 25, 1965, after their fifty-mile trek from Selma, Alabama, in behalf of voting rights that “Confrontation of good and evil compressed in the tiny community of Selma generated the massive power to turn the whole nation to a new course.” In each case, content and method revolved around a central concept based on a synthesis of historical black experience and faith in the power of idea-charged words as a catalyst for change.

All King’s major speeches were historical sermons, focusing on the moral dimensions of the struggle for human equality and the nonviolent method that he believed essential to its success. Frequently, he drew illustrations from religious writings and experiences, as well as from quotidian details of the life of the poor and oppressed.

After the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, he retained his earlier style but increased his emphasis upon socioeconomic problems and the escalating Vietnam War. In April, 1967, at New York’s famed Riverside Church, he delivered a controversial speech in which he looked “Beyond Vietnam” and the destructive conflict he now openly opposed. King clearly saw his criticism of the war as consistent with his earlier position of nonviolence, but he had yet to learn just how much it would damage his previously amicable relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson, who strongly supported the war, and even many of his associates in the civil rights struggle. In that sense, King’s later speeches were more divisive politically than before. He averred at Riverside that needed social programs were being destroyed by the heavy cost, both moral and economic, of the conflict in Southeast Asia.

The year following the Riverside speech...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Hansen, Drew D. The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech That Inspired a Nation. New York: Ecco, 2003. Extensive study of the circumstances surrounding King’s most famous speech, the speech itself, and its short-and long-term consequences.

Jackson, Thomas F. From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Examination of the broadening of King’s message beyond civil rights to include the fight for social justice as a human right.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by James Melvin Washington. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986. A compendium of King’s writings and speeches from the early days of the nonviolent Civil Rights movement to his last days in Memphis. Offers the reader a convenient sampling of King’s major works.

Peake, Thomas R. Keeping the Dream Alive: A History of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from King to the Nineteen-Eighties. New York: P. Lang, 1987. Contains numerous references to King’s nonviolent theory and to specific addresses and sermons that emphasize the concept. Extensive coverage is given to the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech that mirrored the full spectrum of elements of King’s nonviolence and its relevance to African American experience.

Schulke, Flip, ed. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Documentary, Montgomery to Memphis. Text by Penelope McPhee. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976. A pictorial survey that is much more. Schulke, a photographer who viewed at first hand much of the story, provides the drama missing in many accounts. Photographs, especially of major speeches, are extraordinarily focused on the intensity of the moment. Useful narrative with considerable historical detail accompanies the photographic coverage.

“Speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” Negro History Bulletin 31 (May, 1968): 22. A brief but useful commentary on King’s power as an orator who embodied the African experience in modern America. Sees King as a catalyst who defied the odds against making significant progress in a short period of time.