From dream and mountaintop to nightmare and crash to earth.
From harmonious music of the black church to somber strains of mourning over dashed ideals.
When politicians, preachers and pundits line up to pay tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on this holiday, they’ll focus in their various ways on what he had to say to a nation in need of re-examination and renewal.
They’ll pay too little attention to how he said it.
King’s soaring superlatives, irresistible rhythms, controlled fervor and deft mixture of formal, biblical and plain country speech cast him with America’s greatest orators. Indeed, when it comes to rhetoric alone, the champion of equality may not have an equal. But how important is that gift, in the social and historical scheme of things?
I asked two eminent students of King’s language who come from different worlds – an African-American professor at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis and a scholar who runs diversity and equality programs – in Sweden.
Frank Thomas, professor of homiletics (the art of preaching) and Director of the Academy of Preaching and Celebration at CTS, says the power of King’s verbal genius can’t be overestimated, because it bridged the religious folk vernacular of the black South and the lingo of white liberals so poetically as to create a national conversation.
Just as important, and unhappily, a shift in his speaking style and substance near the end of his life signaled grave doubt as to how far that conversation could go.
Some of the same social injustices Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of during the 1960s remain topical today.
“His early speeches were jeremiads [prolonged lamentations or complaints], expressing the view that America’s problems were grounded in the inability to follow America’s values,” Thomas says. “The pinnacle for many people is the I Have a Dream speech of 1963; but I argue that the speech at the end of the Selma march in 1965 was his most hopeful. It was the last time his speeches would be picked up live across the nation. It was the zenith.
“But then, in 1967, came Beyond Vietnam, in which he said the problems of America were not in failure to live up to its values, but lay in the very structure of the society – the so-called triplets of materialism, racism, militarism.”
Thomas, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on King’s speeches post-1967, adds that the style differences follow the change of heart and mind. Selma rolls famously with Scripture-driven exultation – “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” – and electrifies the crowd with the refrain “How long? Not long!” The Vietnam speech – “We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak” – is grim by comparison. And less ecclesiastical. The hope isn’t gone, but it is bestowed on the oppressed people of the world and no longer on the U.S. as their beacon.
King’s music was never of the easy listening variety, Fredrik Sunnemark points out. An associate professor of the history of ideas, he directs the Centre for Studies of Diversity, Equality and Integration at University West in Sweden. In 2003, he published an analysis of King’s rhetoric through Indiana Press, and it was entitled Ring Out Freedom!: The Voice of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement.
“King was not a comforter and much more attention should be given to the challenging nature of his rhetoric rather than as a historical source of goodness,” Sunnemark says. King’s words, he adds, “are of course often understood as very important difference-makers in American history as such, not only in the U.S. but also in the rest of the world. He is that kind of figure and his rhetoric is known and understood also in this sense. But what is sometimes forgotten is the critical, acute political situations they were uttered in and constructed in relation to. In this context, his speeches and sermons become fundamentally political and parts of a historical event and should be understood in relation to it. They are not just general words, it is not just general rhetoric – it is words and rhetoric that were parts of a struggle and deeply imbedded in the strivings of a movement at the core concerned with change.”
King's I Have a Dream speech stands out as his most famous, but he presented many others with the same oratorical skills.
In a nation still polarized, nearly a half century later, around the issues King confronted, is there a successor at the tall pulpit he occupied? Barack Obama with his church-steeped eloquence on such occasions as the memorial service for the mass shooting victims in Charleston, South Carolina, may be the closest we’ll get. But Thomas and Sunnemark note that Obama’s office – and the inference that his election made America “post-racial” – limit his role and rhetoric as a prophet of change.
Thomas traces King’s oratorical legacy into the Obama era in his book American Dream 2.0: A Christian Way Out of the Great Recession. There is a larger and more ominous question now, he says. Young African-Americans, living with police brutality and other vestiges of King’s day, aren’t up for uplift from anybody.
“There’s a tiredness of trying to get across to whites. They will accept help in their struggle, but they are not doing moral suasion anymore,” says Thomas. “And they’re also not looking for a charismatic leader. When he is assassinated, the movement dies.”
After accepting his Noble Peace Prize in 1965, King gave one of his lesser-known speeches in Hollywood. To hear an example of King's "magnificently modulated" speaking voice, have a listen to this NPR story about that day on which he spoke to a full house at the Temple Israel of Hollywood.