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Talking the talk

The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King Jr.; Jonathan Rieder; Belknap/Harvard University Press: 394 pp., $29.95

April 06, 2008|David J. Garrow | David J. Garrow, a senior fellow at Homerton College, University of Cambridge, is the author of "Bearing the Cross," a Pulitzer prize-winning biography of King.

Preachers can say the darndest things, as perhaps you've heard. "God damn America," to take one recent controversial example, is pretty mild compared with other recorded pulpit snippets. Consider this denunciation of U.S. military behavior abroad: "[W]e are criminals in that war. We've committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world." Or, similarly, calling the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" and condemning it for creating "concentration camps."

It sounds like the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. decrying the Iraqi civilian death toll and the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, right? Sorry, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made those remarks in February 1968 and April 1967, attacking U.S. conduct in Vietnam.

Indeed, here's a historian's question for YouTube warriors on all sides of Sen. Barack Obama's presidential candidacy. "Is Obama Wright?," as one video has been titled? A powerful return volley could be "Is Obama King?" -- which thousands of voters may be asking themselves. In fact, if all the relevant film footage of King's sermons were readily available for viewing, the most accurate and instructive title would be "Is King Wright?" Or, better yet, "Is Wright King?"

These questions and comparisons came to mind as I read Jonathan Rieder's rich, thoughtful new book, "The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me." Published to coincide with the 40th anniversary of King's assassination in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, the book "is not biography, history, or theology," Rieder emphasizes. Instead, the Barnard College sociologist focuses on "King's language and the way he deployed it," as distinct from King's public activism or the substance of his beliefs. The result is an extended meditation on the deeper meanings of the civil rights leader's words and how he used them, featuring a mosaic of carefully chosen and closely analyzed quotations.

"The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me" is an extremely learned book, one that Rieder has been working on for almost two decades (and he thanks this writer for answering a number of queries over the years). But he is surprisingly reluctant to draw explicit or broad conclusions. Successive sections consider the language King used in private discussion (some of which was recorded thanks to the FBI's extensive bugging and wiretapping of King) with African American friends as well as his preaching to black congregations, his overtly political addresses at civil rights rallies and what Rieder calls King's "crossover" orations and writings aimed at predominantly white audiences.

Uppermost in Rieder's treatment is his heartfelt desire to see King as a fundamentally universalist public voice rather than an essentially black voice. (King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, particularly its oft-quoted line elevating "the content of their character" above "the color of their skin," is the most famous example of King's universalism.) Rieder tempers this argument at times, as when he acknowledges that "the image of the universalistic King" is partial and incomplete, but he admits his discomfort with the highly influential interpretations of King by the Rev. James H. Cone -- a theological mentor to Wright -- and Keith D. Miller, scholars who (like this writer) have viewed King first and foremost as a product of the black Baptist Church world in which he grew up.

Miller pioneered our understanding of the extent to which King, like many preachers, drew heavily from previous sermons composed by other ministers, many of whom were white, in his 1992 book on King, "Voice of Deliverance." Rieder acknowledges such work, and he notes the extent of King's word-for-word plagiarism throughout his graduate school course work, particularly in his unpublished doctoral dissertation.

But Rieder is too scrupulous a scholar to minimize King's blackness, so again and again his analysis acknowledges truths about King that stand in considerable tension with Rieder's universalist thesis. "Blackness for King was in certain respects incidental and interim," the author claims. But he also writes that King "was much more emphatic and enthusiastic with black audiences," that "King tended to reserve self-disclosure for black audiences" and that he exhibited a "reluctance to reveal himself before whites." Further on, Rieder notes -- accurately -- that "the King who spoke in black spaces beyond white scrutiny was often a more ethnic figure than the orator familiar to the public imagination."

Thus in his desire to reject what he calls "a romance of racial authenticity," one that says "the real King was the black King, and the black King was the one who talked black," Rieder falls victim to the thoroughness of his own scholarship. "[T]he things King tended to expunge from his talk in white venues were often significant," he admits, and that "sometimes diminished the power of the written and spoken words that King addressed to whites."

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