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On Martin Luther King Jr. and the Landscape of Civil Rights Rhetoric
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For several decades after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., surprisingly few scholars have carefully examined the rhetoric of King and other figures of the civil rights movement. Fortunately, over approximately the last five years, that situation has been changing, as this group of books suggests.1

Here, I review the books listed—all of which treat King’s oratory. Then, I analyze the rapidly expanding scholarship about the racial struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. Strenuously challenging the national memory of King as the only notable leader of racial agitation, this research charts a constellation of important strategists and orators—virtually all of whom warrant attention from those who seek to understand the politics and rhetoric of the largest mass movement for human rights in American history.

One task of rhetorical scholars is to fathom how civil rights advocates managed to seize and reinvigorate commonplaces. Wolfgang Mieder, a professor of German and folklore, has spent his career contemplating proverbs, including those favored by Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, and Barack Obama. Here, he examines King’s use of proverbs from the Bible, literature, and folk culture. Mieder devotes more than half of this volume to indexing King’s huge number of proverbs, quoting a chunk of a King text that revolves around each familiar expression. Mieder contends that King’s rhetoric succeeded, to a large degree, because he stockpiled sayings and adages to hurl at the racial status quo. Using proverbs, Mieder argues, enabled King to wrap himself in Christianity, Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, American “folk wisdom,” and everyday “common sense,” and thereby to seem much more palatable (especially to whites) than he would otherwise have appeared. In this argument, King’s ability to rechristen proverbs helped him become, to use the phrase of August Meier, a “conservative militant” as he promoted radical notions about racial equality, non-violence, and the end of poverty. Mieder’s argument is strong, largely because he thoroughly documents King’s use of proverbs.

In an examination of King’s “I Have a Dream,” Eric Sundquist, a professor of literature and humanities, joins Mieder in thoughtfully pursuing antecedent meanings of King’s phrases. Throughout this book, Sundquist illuminates “I Have a Dream” by unpacking trainloads of associations that King’s words summon for his listeners. For example, Sundquist discusses previous, approximately similar (or, in one case, opposite), culturally rich uses of dream motifs in the biblical book of Daniel and among such important American writers as Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and white Southerner Lillian Smith. Sundquist also concentrates on uses of dream imagery in 1962 that apparently impacted either King or his listeners, imagery from an African American woman speaking at a church service in Georgia, a white woman conversing in Georgia, and the Temptations crooning for Motown Records. Sundquist explains that, near the end of “I Have a Dream,” King quotes from “America” (“My country ‘tis of thee”), an anthem that inspired Union soldiers during the Civil War and became an evergreen of American song. As Sundquist shows, King’s metaphor of bells pealing freedom appeared not only in “America” but also in an antislavery pamphlet, an abolitionist poem, a slave spiritual, James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (known as the “Negro National Anthem”), and Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.” Even though King sounded learned in “I Have a Dream,” he apparently selected dream imagery for his famous speech for the same reason that he chose proverbs, to reinvigorate commonplaces that his listeners already understood.

In 2003, Drew Hansen, a former Rhodes Scholar and now a lawyer and state legislator, carefully explored the evolution of “I Have a Dream.”2 Aware that King often repeated and adapted material from his own earlier addresses—in effect, treating each speech as a possible draft for a future speech—Hansen traced the dream motif that King refined at a massive rally in Detroit two months before delivering “I Have a Dream.” Hansen also supplied ample quotations of various written drafts of “I Have a Dream,” allowing readers to track, in some detail, the evolution of the words that came to comprise that speech.

With such notable...

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