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Martin Luther King and the Rhetoric of Freedom

The Exodus Narrative in America's Struggle for Civil Rights

Gary S. Selby

Publication Year: 2008

In this beautifully written book, Gary Selby shows how Martin Luther King, Jr. used the biblical story of Exodus to motivate African Americans in their struggle for freedom from racial oppression. Through an examination of King's major speeches, Selby illuminates the ways in which King drew from the Exodus narrative to offer his listeners a structure that explained their present circumstances, urged united action, and provided the conviction that they would succeed. Selby explains how King constructed a symbolic framework for interpreting the setbacks of the Civil Rights movement, even as he challenged them to remain faithful to the cause.

Published by: Baylor University Press

Cover Page

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Title Page


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p. ix

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pp. xi-xii

In the biblical story of the burning bush, when he realizes that he is on holy ground, Moses hides his face out of a sense of awe and of his own smallness in relation to God. In the writing of this book, as I have listened to the voices of the civil rights movement, I have often felt that sense of awe. I am struck by how small...

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pp. 1-11

On the evening of December 5, 1955, Martin Luther King, twenty-six years old and barely fifteen months into the first pastoral appointment of his career as minister for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, stood before a gathering of some four thou-sand crowded into the auditorium and basement and spilling out onto...

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Chapter 1: Rhetoric and Social Movements

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pp. 13-26

In his provocative essay “ ‘Social Movement’: Phenomenon or Meaning?” Michael Calvin McGee forcefully argued that the label “social movement” essentially reflected a shared set of meanings within human consciousness—an “organizing of social facts which can be objectivated only in linguistic usage”—rather than an objective...

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Chapter 2. Let my people go: The Exodus in African American Cultural History

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pp. 27-49

When, on the first night of the Montgomery bus boycott, King spoke of the “long night of captivity,”1 when almost a year later he pro-claimed, “The Red Sea has opened,”2 when he invited his audience to imagine the “great camp meeting in the promised land of freedom and justice,”3 and when he urged his hearers, “We’ve got to keep ...

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Chapter 3: The Red Sea Has Opened

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pp. 51-70

On Sunday, July 21, 1955, just twenty-five years old and nine months into his first year as pastor of Montgomery, Alabama’s, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, King stepped into the pulpit and read from Exodus 14:30, his chosen text for that morning’s sermon: “And Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore.” With these words, he began what ...

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Chapter 4. Broken Aloose from Egypt: The Exodus in King’s Montgomery Bus Boycott Rhetoric

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pp. 71-90

On February 21, 1956, almost three months into the Montgomery bus boycott—a protest most thought would be over in days or, at most, a couple of weeks—King and eighty-nine other boycott leaders were indicted for violating Alabama’s anti-boycott law. A month later...

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Chapter 5. Reaching out for Canaan: King’s “Birth of a New Nation” Sermon

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pp. 91-114

In March of 1957, barely two months after the boycott had ended, King traveled to the West African country of Ghana at the invitation of the country’s prime minister designate, Kwame Nkrumah, to attend the celebration of its transition from a colony under British rule (known as the Gold Coast) to an independent country. The transfer of ...

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Chapter 6. I’ve been to the mountaintop: King as the Movement’s Moses

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pp. 115-136

When he addressed the Montgomery bus boycott’s first mass meeting on the night of December 5, 1955, King, just weeks from his twenty-seventh birthday, was virtually unknown outside of his congregation and the small collection of ministers who served the city’s other black churches. He had been hastily installed earlier that day as president of the MIA, in part because he was...

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Chapter 7: Keep the Movement Moving

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pp. 137-161

In her captivating memoir, Carry Me Home, Diane McWhorter pointed to 1963—what she called the “Year of Birmingham”—as “the national turning point” in the history of racial apartheid in the United States. Central to that historical shift, she wrote, were

the huge nonviolent demonstrations that Martin Luther King Jr....

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pp. 163-172

On March 25, 1965, King addressed a gathering of some twenty thousand people crowded around the steps of the Alabama State Capitol to celebrate the successful end to an arduous four-day march from Selma to Montgomery:

Today I want to tell the city of Selma, (Tell them, Doctor) today I want to say to the state of Alabama, (Yes, sir) today I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world, that we are not about to turn around. (Yes, sir) We are on the move now....


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pp. 173-193


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pp. 195-205


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pp. 207-217

Selby back

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E-ISBN-13: 9781602581722
E-ISBN-10: 160258172X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781602580169
Print-ISBN-10: 1602580162

Page Count: 225
Publication Year: 2008

Edition: 1

OCLC Number: 237004558
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Martin Luther King and the Rhetoric of Freedom

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Subject Headings

  • King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968 -- Language.
  • Exodus, The -- Sermons.
  • Exodus, The.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- History -- 20th century.
  • Civil rights movements -- Southern States -- History -- 20th century
  • Civil rights movements -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • King, Martin Luther, -- Jr., 1929-1968 -- Oratory.
  • Rhetoric -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Rhetoric -- Religious aspects -- Christianity -- History -- 20th century.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century
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