This section contains 7,250 words
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Keith D. Miller
Right. So, it's now eight years. I've many, many notebooks, but what I see when I examine the notebooks now are phases of development toward the work I'm doing at present. I see it in embryonic stages early on, and I begin to see what I thought were simply notes, because they didn't resemble my earlier work, were, actually in early form, the work that I have now begun to do … the new work, in other words. I didn't recognize it at first. I thought it was failed old work.
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.
King and Language:
In the eyes of the press and most of America, King emerged as a uniquely powerful leader. But how did this process occur? What made King a superstar?
The answer to this question can be stated in a single word: language. King's unmatched words galvanized blacks and changed the minds of moderate and uncommitted whites. Others could embrace nonviolence, get arrested, and accept martyrdom. But only King could convince middle-of-the-road whites about the meaning of the revolutionary events they were witnessing on their television screens. His persuasiveness did more than surpass that of his colleagues. It enabled him to accomplish what Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. DuBois, and his own models and mentors had failed to achieve. By persuading whites to accept the principle of racial equality, he made a monumental contribution to solving the nation's most horrific problem—racial injustice.
Keith D. Miller, in his Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Its Sources, The Free Press, 1992.
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
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
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-
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.]
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