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King's Speeches Still Influencing World Rhetoric


I'm Cheryl Corley and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We continue our commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death. Like so many of our impressions of complicated people, our assessment of Dr. King's message has been clouded by time and our own yearning. So says a new book, "The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr." Michel Martin spoke with author, Jonathan Rieder, before she left, and asked if Dr. King's message has become softened over time.

Dr. JONATHAN RIEDER (Professor, Author): When you look at King backstage, as it were, in the last sort of obvious visible performances, when he was in black churches, when he was exhorting in the black-belt in passionate mass-meetings, when he was carrying on with his preacher buddies backstage.

There's a different King that emerges in many respects, and a much richer repertoire of styles and moods, and when you look at that, you understand the power, the burning power, of his prophetic vision. It was many ways, despite all his learning, and his quotes from Buber and Tillich, this was a man who had fire locked up in his bones.

And he had inherited that from the black pulpit and his Daddy King's afro-Baptist tradition. So we get a different sense of this King when we look at him backstage, and that allows us, then, to return to the famous addresses to the larger white society and see them in a new light, in many ways.


One of the central themes in your book was that Dr. King was a master of many different audiences. Let's play a clip that you cite in the book. This one is from his speech at the convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta in 1967.

(Soundbite of speech "Where Do We Go From Here?")

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Civil Rights Activist): A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will thingify them and make them things. Therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally, economically.

MARTIN: Who is he talking to here?

Dr. RIEDER: Well, he's taking to his colleagues, his close friends who have been in the movement with him, the members of SCLC. He's talking from the heart to those closest to him who've been in the struggle with him.

MARTIN: One of the things that you also point out in the book is that it's almost as if he's in his current understanding - and a lot of our society's current understanding of Dr. King, he's been kind of ripped out the context of his subversiveness, just how radical he was in some ways. You write "the mantra, 'I have a dream,' ripped out of the context of King's subversive gospel, has become the ambient noise of a society eager for good news." What do you say?

Dr. RIEDER: What is the clip that we love so often to air every King holiday? Black History Month? "I Have a Dream" and that image of black children and white children holding hands. And when we play it today, it kind of ratifies a self-congratulations. Look how far we've come from the old days. We can look back and there's nothing discomforting about that. But King meant to unsettle the nation about racism, about war, about the hunger of children, and so there was nothing nice and easy about his vision of his prophetic life, as it were.

MARTIN: And I'm just wondering why it is that we have a hard time remembering that his words were meant to unsettle? Did he use different language with different audiences? Was he more gentle in his critique when he talked to certain audiences? Or was it more us, that we've just chosen to remember him differently than he was?

Dr. RIEDER: Well, I think both things are at work. The first point, though, is really important. To some extent, when King was in his crossover mode, reaching out to the larger white society, as in the March on Washington, he thought of that speech, in many respects, as, quote, "a white speech." He was targeting Congress. It was practically oriented. So he would try to find that appeal to the moral sensibility that was shared.

MARTIN: Was his style of preaching unique?

Dr. RIEDER: Well, it's very easy to stress the virtuosity of Dr. King. And there's no doubt that he was a man with skills. He had mastered the word as it were. But we have to put him in a context, and there're really two contexts. He had amazing models and mentors. So, his father, Daddy King, who was a whooper of the old-style Baptist preaching, and King was always embarrassed by that. It seemed, in a way, carnival-like. It embarrassed his sense of refinement, but he absorbed the passion of it and the cadences of it as well...

MARTIN: You crack me up, though, when you talk about how he wasn't a "whooper."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RIEDER: Well, you know, there's a lot of debate, actually, among some of King's colleagues. Did he hoop? Which is kind of a softer version of whooping, and he didn't whoop like some of the great preachers. C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin's father, is a good example. He was King's favorite preacher.

But you know, he - in his own way, and Wyatt Tee Walker, Reverend Walker told me - he said, no, no, no, no. Martin could hoop a little. He had a quieter version of hooping, and you hear a little bit of that in that previous clip of a hint of that, and he had a special expressive side that he would do when preaching.

He'd go "oh." It wasn't shouting, but it was oh-oh, I know it's hard to love the white man, or oh, and it's like, all of the emotion of whooping is channeled into this refined substitute. So he could get a little fiery glad and a little fiery mad in the right kind of setting.

MARTIN: Speaking of fiery mad and fiery glad, and whether there's a difference between the two, there's this controversy, now, surrounding Senator Barack Obama and his relationship with his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Now I know you're not a scholar of Reverend Wright's, but there are those who compared some of Wright's sermons to those of Dr. King unfavorably, and I just wondered, what do you make of that comparison?

Dr. RIEDER: Well, I would not put the two men together exactly. Their styles are different. Their theology is different. However, if you look at that clip that has drawn so much attention, "God Damn America," lifted, as a snippet, out of its context, you miss some of its most important elements and in many ways, they are not so different from certain aspects of King.

MARTIN: Well, there's a clip I wanted to play. I wanted to get your comparison. It's a clip from one of Dr. King's sermons at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Los Angeles...


MARTIN: In 1962. I'd like to play a clip of that.

(Soundbite of sermon, Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Los Angeles, June 17, 1962)

Dr. KING: I know the temptation that comes to all of us. We've seen the viciousness of lynching mobs with our own eyes. We've seen police brutality in our own lives. We're still the last hired and the first fired. So many doors are closed in our faces, and that is a temptation for us to end up with bitterness. And I understand these people who have ended up in despair.

MARTIN: Was Dr. King criticized for this? For being unpatriotic, so to speak?

Dr. RIEDER: His late speeches drew tremendous criticism, but I think that clip that you just played goes to the heart of something very important. Like Barack Obama, in Obama's Philadelphia speech, King was not disowning the Watts rioters he's referring to. He's giving an empathetic response, I know the temptation that comes to all of us.

And that "us" is a black us, there, "that I understand," could even go beyond understanding, and I know the temptation. Notice he says - he's admitting he felt the temptation of hatred, and he went through a period, as a young boy, of hating all whites, because of what he had suffered, and he transcended that.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and we're speaking with Jonathan Rieder about his new book, "The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr." Did he ever say that to white audiences, though? I mean, did he ever say, in front of white audiences, I have hated you because of the way I have been treated? I've moved beyond that? But did he ever say the - or is that something that he, mainly, shared with his African-American audiences, who were likely to have understood what he was saying or maybe felt the same way?

Dr. RIEDER: This is the fascinating thing about King. He tended to reserve some of those emotions for black audiences, but he often found indirect ways of expressing them to certain white audiences, and we need to understand that when he was in Crozer Divinity School, his first saunter out into the white world.

He grew up in a total black environment and here he is in this white environment and learning white sermon forms, and in a paper he wrote on the autobiography of his religious development with - to a white professor, he shared in detail his feelings of hating the white man and his heralds trying to say, you must love those that would hate you. And he lays bare that emotion with whites as well as blacks, though not as often, and not in as full a form.

MARTIN: You talked to many of his contemporaries for your book. How did they perceive his "code-switching," as you put it, you know? You know that a lot of public figures these days are criticized for code-switching. You know, people say derisively, oh, you're talking one way to this folks, and you're talking differently to these folks, and that somehow is deemed to mean that you're being inauthentic. When you talked to his contemporaries about this, what did they say?

Dr. RIEDER: Well, I think they laugh, and I asked Reverend C.T. Vivian. Walter Fauntroy said the same thing to me, Joseph Lowery. They said, look, well, of course preachers shift codes and adapt to their audience. That's simply the art and artistry of all public speaking. But the message, if you want to understand Martin Luther King, don't read theology, read the four gospels of Jesus Christ. And that's - their view was, you know, what else is new? What was interesting about King is his repertoire, because of his education and his innate talent, spanned so many different styles, that he could work them so well.

MARTIN: Sometimes when you use your erudition, you display it a little too eagerly. Everybody doesn't always appreciate that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Did, sometimes, folks get on him about that? Why do you need all those big words, Martin, you know?

Dr. RIEDER: You know, King had a show-off streak, and he had a slightly pompous streak, and especially when he introduces himself to America, in "Stride to Freedom," and this is back in the day in Montgomery, and he starts out, I was driving through the countryside, listening to the Metropolitan Opera, Lucia di Lammermoor playing.

And you know, he had a tendency, sometimes, to get carried away with the fanciness. And there was one wonderful time in a Birmingham mass-meeting in which he'd been doing his standard parsing of Eros, what does it mean to love the white man? And then, Ralph Abernathy gets up, who was a master in his prime of country vernacular speaking.

And he says, now, Dr. King talked to you about that A-rahs(ph), and he just draws it out, A-rahs, and he told them what it might be. He says, it might be the way your lover walks. It may be the way your lover talks. I'm glad he didn't tell you really what it's about...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RIEDER: But what do you expect? That's the way people in Georgia talk. In Alabama, we prefer - and then he goes on. So there was a lot of tweaking and amusement sometimes.

MARTIN: Break it down.

Dr. RIEDER: Break it down.

MARTIN: Break it down.

Dr. RIEDER: Make it plain!

MARTIN: Make it plain.

Dr. RIEDER: Make it play. John Lewis said it to me over and over. The congressman said, look, Daddy King would be there in the back saying, when Martin was speaking, make it plain. Make it plain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But one of the things you pointed out, though, is that he chafed at the notion that he was only, as a preacher, and as a preacher of a prophetic word, meant to comment on issues of race, and that when he talked about other political issues, got a lot of backlash on this, and there was a clip from a speech on April 4th, 1967, at a meeting of clergy and laity at Riverside Church about the Vietnam War. I'd like to play that for you.

(Soundbite of speech "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence")

Dr. KING: We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness.

MARTIN: Was he criticized as unpatriotic for this? And what did he make of that?

Dr. RIEDER: He was criticized as unpatriotic for this by the larger white society, but there - also criticism came from black quarters who felt, no, no, no, we have to worry about the black struggle. We can't worry about the Vietnamese. And I think he defines that, most powerfully - his response to that, which really gives us the best sense of who King was underneath all the erudition in a sermon, "Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool." And he says to Ebenezer, you didn't anoint me.

God anointed me. the word of the Lord is upon me. And so, when he started to care about hunger, in the final days, and poverty, and he would speak to black audiences in these little black-belt towns, like Marks, Mississippi, he would say, all God's children who are hungry, white and black, this isn't only about race, and I think that's where you see King's universalism underneath even, as I've tried to give a, quote, "blacker" account of King in many ways than is usual in the public sort of view of him.

He never lost his basic guiding light of all God's children and that he had been anointed in this prophetic way, and therefore, you know, he didn't care if Ebenezer was mad. He didn't call - care if Lyndon Johnson was mad at him. He had to do what was just and righteous, like the prophets of old.

MARTIN: It sounds like you had a lot of fun with this project.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RIEDER: Oh, you know, it's - there's nothing like this and I think most importantly, the time I spent with King colleagues, we tend to make King the hero, and "St. Martin" is the way American culture wants to kind of pluck one leader out as sort of our celebration, but he was part of a collective endeavor, and each niche of that, from the foot soldiers who really, you know, got beaten terribly.

They had their physical lives on the line all the time, when they were in Selma and all these other places. You just couldn't help not only have a good time with it but to marvel at people who embody this kind of mandate to free the captives in a very practical sense.

MARTIN: What do you think you have added to our understanding of Dr. King?

Dr. RIEDER: I think what I've done, more than anything else, is I've given attention to King's words and the speaker. King is a more modern figure than we actually recognize. It's easy to put him in a context of the old integration versus black separatism, but in a world of mixed marriage and brownness and yellowness and ochreness complicating that old black-white spectrum, King's ability to glide in and out. No ethnicity-religion experience was foreign to him. And at the same time, at a core of, you know, this deep blackness, in many ways, he's a figure utterly, precociously anticipating this kind of kind of crazy, mixed-up, post-ethnic world that we're all dealing with in modern America.

MARTIN: Jonathan Rieder is a professor of sociology at Columbia University's Barnard College. He is author of the new book, "The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr." He joined us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Professor Rieder, thank you so much.

Dr. RIEDER: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

CORLEY: We've been asking listeners where they were when they learned of Dr. King's assassination. Many of you have shared your stories and we have posted them to our blog. To read these remembrances, visit us online at npr.org/tellmemore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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