Jonathan Rieder explores the range and variety of Dr. King's rhetoric.
Undoubtedly, he would be preparing joyfully to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama, America’s first black president.
Unfortunately, though, King will not be joining the Obamas, but people wanting to learning about his life and work have plenty of materials from which to choose.
King is also the subject of children’s books and a central figure in documentaries like Eyes on the Prize
, At The River I Stand
and Citizen King
, among others. Clayborne Carson
, my undergraduate thesis advisor, has spent the past 20 years of his career overseeing the publication of the King papers; thus far the center has produced 10 books of King’s speeches, sermons and a King encyclopedia.
With such a plethora of sources-reader Dan Prusaitis
said he did a search recently and found more than 131 books about the slain civil rights leader-one can hardly be faulted for greeting the arrival with yet another book about King with unbated breath.
The King that emerges in Rieder’s work is not the saintly figure that one sees during annual celebrations of his birthday. That King is frozen in time proclaiming his dream at the March on Washington.
Through his examination of King’s words and the settings in which they occurred, Rieder paints a far richer, more complex portrait of the man.
The King of The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me is all flesh and blood, at different times playing the “dozens” with members of his inner circle, many of whom were preachers, a pastor who combines raw emotion and refined knowledge in his sermons to black audiences and an advocate for peace who consciously emphasize for white audiences the importance of striving for the “beloved community.”
Rieder ultimately argues that King is a crossover artist and code switcher who consciously used different phrases and messages to black and white audiences. Indeed, part of the significance of the March on Washington speech is not King’s articulation of his dream, according to Rieder, but that he choose to abandon his set text and started “as exultant a display of blackness before the nation as once could imagine at the time” while helping to form one of America’s most profound moments.
Rieder divides the work into four sections. The first part looks at how King spoke with his colleagues, with whom he was highly earthy, while the second examines the tension between raw and refined elements in King’s preaching. The third part tackles King’s oratory in mass meetings, and the final section looks at how King crossed over to white audiences with appeals to “amazing universalism.”
Rieder delineates his scope from the outset:
“This book is not biography, history or theology. It is mainly an interpretive effort to understand a complex man-not the deep thinker or the inspiring doer, but the fluent speaker who did inspiring things with his words.”
Rieder maintains this focus throughout the book, continually supplying examples of King’s words, the context in which they occurred, the audience’s response and the consequence of the interaction. Rieder’s description of the Mountaintop speech
, given the night before King died, is notable for how it captures the emotion the speech elicited.
But so, too, is his explanation of how King would not confine himself rigidly to one persona for black audiences-he would be likely to discuss the three words for love in Greek-eros, phylia and agape, for example-but instead could flow between black and white groups. The language he used, and the faith and empathy underpinning the words, was central to that effort.
Rieder’s skill in drawing King’s varied forms of expressions and the audiences that heard them to make a persuasive argument about the King’s faith, language and impact is its most impressive aspect. Still, his convincing explanation that, while he referred to Mohandas Gandhi
in Stride Toward Freedom
, King was at base a Christian thinker whose deep and abiding faith contributed mightily to the success of his moral and universal appeal to the nation is significant, too.
In short, The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me is a mesmerizing and original look at one of America’s most important historical figures.
Obama is another such figure.
That King will not be around to see Obama sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts
is the reminder of a wound that still hurts, even though than 40 years have passed since it initially was sustained.
That there are works like Jonathan Rieder’s to help us understand the man who worked with so many others to end legal apartheid and pave the way for the enormously important occasion helps to cushion the blow.