Chapter 3: The Red Sea Has Opened
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51 Chapter 3 THE RED SEA HAS OPENED King’s “Death of Evil on the Seashore” Sermon 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 would become one of the most significant speeches of his early career as spokesperson for the civil rights movement.1 Less than one year later, on May 17, 1956, he would deliver the same sermon before a New York City audience of some 12,000 gathered to commemorate the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, an occasion that would signal King’s emergence as a national figure.2 Additionally, the speech was published in a leading denominational magazine, disseminated in pamphlet form, and included in his first volume of published sermons, Strength to Love.3 It thus enjoyed wide circulation and influence, and King himself clearly saw it as one of his most significant early addresses. Most importantly for this study, “The Death of Evil on the Seashore” is the earliest programmatic example of what would become a persistent pattern in King’s rhetoric, that of invoking the Exodus story as a symbolic framework for viewing blacks’ struggle for justice in the United States. King had arrived in Montgomery the previous summer, officially taking over his duties as Dexter Avenue’s pastor on September 1, 1954, at the age of twenty-four. His first year had been devoted to meeting the demands of preparing and preaching a sermon each Sunday, implementing plans for reorganizing the congregation, and completing his doctoral dissertation, which he successfully defended in the spring of 1955. Although he encouraged voter registration among his congregants and appointed a new committee in the church to focus on 52 CHAPTER THREE social and political action, charging it with keeping “before the congregation the importance of the NAACP,” King was only minimally involved in local political efforts to improve conditions for blacks in Montgomery.4 Nevertheless, racial oppression occupied King’s thinking during this period. As Ralph Abernathy, with whom King had become close friends since arriving in the city, later recalled, the Kings and the Abernathys would often spend evenings together talking about race. Said Abernathy, We had no particular program in mind when we talked about the social ills of society . . . except for the fact that Dr. King felt his training demanded that he bring to the Dexter Avenue congregation the greatest social gospel and action program it had ever experienced.5 King’s “Death of Evil” sermon not only demonstrates that conviction , but it also reflects King’s attempt to create the kind of symbolic, interpretive framework for addressing those social ills that would be a crucial element in the emergence of the movement—and this, months before any organized collective action had even begun. This chapter explores King’s “Death of Evil on the Seashore” sermon, initially delivered five months before the start of the Montgomery bus boycott, which began in December 1955. Building on the theoretical foundation from chapter 1, which views social movements as discursively constructed states of consciousness, it examines the sermon as King’s effort to create what we might call “movement consciousness” in an audience by applying this powerfully salient cultural narrative to the experience of African Americans in the South. It argues that by exploiting the narrative processes of identification, emplotment, and causality, King invited his hearers to participate in a collective identity as the people of God miraculously set free from the Egypt of racial oppression. By manipulating the character of the story’s protagonists, he attempted to proscribe his audience’s attitudes toward their white oppressors, depicting his black hearers as compassionate witnesses to the overthrow of their enemies. Most importantly, by placing them where he did in the plot of the biblical story, at the far side of the Red Sea, he sought to convince his hearers, for whom the prospects of change seemed bleak, that the journey toward freedom had already begun and that they were participating in a dramatic social transformation already in progress. This transformed a future hope into THE RED SEA HAS OPENED 53 a past event, symbolically establishing the reality of a “movement” months before, by any...



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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