The Word of the Lord Is upon Me
National heroes, once they become enshrined as such, tend to flatten out into one-dimensional paragons of virtue. Now that almost every major city in the United States has named a street for Martin Luther King, Jr., and the country celebrates his birthday as a national holiday, King has clearly entered the pantheon of great Americans, and in the process he has lost some of his sharper edges. In the short span of forty years since his death, King’s image has shifted from that of a controversial civil rights leader (mainly associated with African Americans) to a universal representative of freedom and good will.
Jonathan Rieder’s The Word of the Lord Is upon Me aims to recapture the complexity of King. He argues correctly that “the idolatry of King has come at a cost; it has sifted out the unsettlement that King inflicted, and meant to inflict, on a nonchalant, often clueless nation.” King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 aimed at highlighting harsh racial injustice, pointing out the faults in the United States. Now the endless replays of that speech, especially on the holiday of his birth, subtly imply that King’s dream has been mostly fulfilled and that his words describe what is rather than what one day might be. Rieder’s book shows that there is much more depth to King than one would glean from the famous lines spoken in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Through an analysis of King’s rhetoric, Rieder points to how difficult it is to describe King in sound bites.
Rieder focuses upon four different arenas in which King communicated: the company of fellow African American leaders, the black church pulpit, the mass meetings of the Civil Rights movement, and the broader, general public that included white Americans. Depending on the audience, King crafted his speech in startlingly different forms. Among his close circle of friends, almost all of whom were also black preachers, King could sound earthy and even vulgar. In his public addresses and published essays, he achieved a high degree of refinement and erudition. When he took the pulpit of a black Baptist church, King’s language would fall within the black idiom, in content and style. When whites were part of the audience, he leaned toward universal language and universal humanity.
Some might call this pandering, but Rieder is careful to demonstrate that such a charge would be wrong. During his lifetime King sometimes received criticism from those who thought he sold out by making overtures to white audiences. (Here is the most obvious difference between King and Malcolm X, who almost always remained confrontational.) Less sharply, other critics have said that King’s tailoring of his message to white audiences was essentially window dressing. This type of critique separates King’s authentic self as a “race man” from his masked self as someone who appealed to white audiences for pragmatic purposes. Rieder’s book convincingly demonstrates that any attempt to separate the authentic King from the inauthentic, based on how he delivered his message, overlooks the complexity of the man. His capacious mind and his deep commitment to both black Americans and humanity in general precludes any facile compartmentalization of King into a stereotype.
Although he recognizes that King had a chameleonlike ability to appeal to a myriad of audiences, Rieder emphasizes that King’s message had a consistent center. As he states, “the core of the man was the power of his faith, his love of humanity, and an irrepressible resolve to free black people, and other people, too.” Rieder contributes to King scholarship by demonstrating both the coherency of King’s message and the contingent manner in which King clothed his message, depending upon his audience. In every speaking situation, King’s context gave meaning to the content. The fullness of King’s meaning derives from the larger rhetorical situation. In order to do justice to the depth of King’s speeches, therefore, Rieder consistently frames King’s language within the conventions in which they were spoken.
The most intriguing sections of the book are those in which Rieder engages in a close rhetorical analysis. One prime example that illustrates the modulations in King’s rhetoric is the famous “kitchen...
(The entire section is 1755 words.)