Like a mighty streamThe making of Martin Luther King’s speeches
They combined folk religion, theology and the hard-earned wisdom of his campaigns
MIDWAY through Zora Neale Hurston’s novel of 1939, “Moses, Man of the Mountain”, Moses tells the Israelites that God has finally forced Pharaoh to release them. The people are quiet; but on every mind are the words, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty I’m free at last.”
Hurston was the African-American daughter of a poorly educated Alabama Baptist preacher, but she had studied anthropology at Columbia University. Folk religion shaped her childhood; elite education moulded her career. Twenty-four years after her book was published, at the March on Washington of August 28th 1963, Martin Luther King looked out from the Lincoln Memorial over a sea of oppressed people (the date is incised on the memorial’s marble steps). His speech, with its dream of a post-racial gathering around “the table of brotherhood”, is one of the most celebrated in history. After quoting Isaiah and Amos, Hebrew prophets well acquainted with injustice, he concluded with a crescendo: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty we are free at last!”
King attributed the words to “the old Negro spiritual”. But this was not his only borrowing. In 1988 an archivist discovered a troubling pattern in his scholarship; eventually it emerged that 40 of his graduate papers contained plagiarised material. He was posthumously subjected to racist rants, some demanding that Boston University rescind his doctorate. An alternative explanation of the controversy might focus on the dual heritage he shared with Hurston. Like her, King straddled two worlds, one learned and formal, the other spontaneous and communitarian. Combined with the wisdom hard-earned in his campaigns, this fertile combination shaped the oratory for which he is remembered 50 years after his death.
The iron feet of oppression
Hurston may have picked up “Free at last!” from one of the flourishes for which her father was known, or from a sermon by another African-American preacher. Likewise King might himself have heard the words at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where his own father was pastor, or from his preacher-grandfather, or at a chapel service at Morehouse College, the beacon for aspiring black students where he was an undergraduate in the mid-1940s.
In the tradition of both black and white southern folk preaching, ministers usually spoke extemporaneously to unlettered congregants, who expected the Spirit of God to impart messages of encouragement and hope. Manuscripts represented the preacher’s preparation, which was subordinate to God’s inspiration. Repetition of a memorable phrase was a sign of respect, not duplicity. There was no place in sermons for sources or footnotes.
Elite academic culture imposed different standards, refining both King’s beliefs and his rhetoric. His faith was grounded in personal Pietism, a doctrine that ignored the political origins of injustice. In a student paper he wrote that although “the sinfulness of man is often over-emphasised…we must admit that many of the ills in the world are due to plain sin.” At Morehouse he began to question that stance; Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania, where in 1951 he would be valedictorian of his graduating class, furthered his education and his thinking. He encountered the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist pastor and central figure in America’s social-gospel movement. At Crozer and during his subsequent doctoral studies in Boston he delved into the Christian Realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian who believed that Christians committed to justice must sometimes wield political power to achieve it.
If his childhood instilled King’s belief in a loving God, Niebuhr’s work tempered his idealism and contributed to his strategy of mass mobilisation. In time his confidence in the capacity of love to overcome white resistance to black freedom succumbed to the hardened hearts and cruelty he witnessed in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma. He saw that the benevolence of good people could not, by itself, secure social change. Even the non-violent tactics of Mohandas Gandhi temporarily struck him as simplistic when white terrorists threatened his life. His insistence, in “I Have a Dream”, on the “fierce urgency of now”, his approbation of “the whirlwinds of revolt” and disdain for “the tranquillising drug of gradualism” stem from this understanding.
When he began his pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, a block from Alabama’s capitol, a sophisticated note crept in. His small congregation, mostly drawn from Alabama State University, was among the city’s elite. In 1955, two months after receiving his doctorate, he carefully wrote a sermon on “Worship” intended to impress his well-educated parishioners. Proper biblical worship, he told them, combined “the rich and the poor, the white-collar worker and the common labourer…in a vast unity”. After all, “we are all the children of a common father”:
Worship is as natural to the human family as the rising of the sun is to the cosmic order…Buddhism, a religion theoretically without a God, would impress us as a religion that excludes worship; yet in every country where Buddhism is dominant, worship is present. Confucius urged his followers not to have much to do with the gods; yet immediately after his death his followers deified him and today millions worship him.
These elements—academic, political and spiritual—fused after black religious leaders drafted a reluctant King to head the Montgomery Improvement Association. In December 1955, four days after the arrest of Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus (and with only 20 minutes to prepare), he offered an audience of 5,000 at Holt Street Baptist Church a sermon forged by Niebuhr’s Christian Realism, but embedded in the cadence of the black church. That sermon triggered the first civil-rights movement in the Deep South in half a century.
Intended to find a mean between militancy and non-violence, the sermon could have chilled the movement or spun it into anarchy. “There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression…We are here,” King proclaimed, “because we’re tired now.” He firmly eschewed bloodshed. “The only weapon that we have in our hands,” he insisted, “is the weapon of protest.” Indubitably, however, protest was itself an arsenal:
My friends, I want it to be known that we’re going to work with grim and bold determination to gain justice on the buses of this city…If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie. Love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Between the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and the Birmingham campaign of 1963, King perfected the marriage of Gandhian non-violence and public activism. Bull Conner, Birmingham’s public-safety commissioner, and George Wallace, Alabama’s governor, became his foils, inadvertently helping to shame cautious politicians, such as John and Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, into intervening to stop the carnage. In a city where white terrorists had bombed dozens of synagogues, churches and homes, King showed that abstract Christian charity was no match for dynamite. The coercive forces of evil had to be met with the coercive power of federal courts, Congress, the White House, even the federalised National Guard.
Up to the mountain
His sermons still evoked the Exodus narrative. But Conner, Wallace and Jim Clark, the sheriff who brutalised the marchers at Selma, did not let the people go. By the time he wrote “A Realistic Look at Race Relations”—an essay based on a speech he gave in 1956—King was no longer relying on individual conversion. Instead, in terms that reflected the street as much as the seminary, the “walls of injustice” must be “crushed by the battering-rams of historical necessity…And the guardians of the status quo are always on hand with their oxygen tents to preserve the dying order.”
By 1963 his vision of the “beloved community”, or ideal society, had fully evolved. He knew that direct action—motivated by love and committed to non-violence—must employ confrontation in the name of reconciliation and redemption. That year his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” stressed the failure of even the most enlightened white ministers and rabbis to abandon tokenism on behalf of actual justice. From his cell he wrote: “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”
Realising that mass mobilisation would be difficult in Birmingham because company bosses could penalise the protesters, King launched the Children’s Crusade. Speaking without notes at a church filled with parents anxious about their children’s safety, he told the story of 12-year-old Jesus, separated from Mary and Joseph in the vicinity of the Temple in Jerusalem. After being reunited with his parents, Jesus explained, “I must be about my father’s business.” King added his own commentary, at once liturgical and demotic:
Don’t worry about your children; they’re going to be all right. Don’t hold them back if they want to go to jail. These young people must be about their father’s business. And they are carving a tunnel of hope through the great mountain of despair…And they will bring to this nation a quality of idealism it so deeply needs…Keep this movement going. Keep this movement rolling…If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means keep moving.
If Winston Churchill “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”, as JFK put it, King appropriated the language of Zion to dispatch armies of peaceful protesters in pursuit of their freedom.
In 1967, exactly a year before his assassination, King spoke to Clergy and Laity Concerned, an activist group, at Riverside Church in New York. There he broadened his indictment of American injustice, looking beyond southern racism to domestic poverty and foreign conflicts. In one of his best prepared and professionally publicised speeches, he referred to President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” as a “shining moment” in American history:
Then came the build-up in Vietnam, and I watched this programme broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war…I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.
Despite King’s increasing militancy, he ended this homily with a sweeping condemnation of war, arguing that “a true revolution of values” would “say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just’.”
A year later, on the night before his death, his rhetoric came full circle. Speaking to a mass rally in the familiar confines of an African-American church in Memphis, he did not quote Niebuhr. Instead, in the language and biblical rhythm of black folk-Christianity, he again turned to Exodus to explain the failures and dreams of American democracy:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life…But I am not concerned with that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.
He was 39 years old. The next day, April 4th 1968, as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, King was shot and killed.