Chapter 4. Broken Aloose from Egypt: The Exodus in King’s Montgomery Bus Boycott Rhetoric
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71 Chapter 4 broken aloose from egypt The Exodus in King’s Montgomery Bus Boycott Rhetoric 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 antiboycott law. A month later, on March 22, King was convicted and fined five hundred dollars. His conviction represented just one in a succession of efforts by the city to put down the protest. King and other boycott leaders were subjected to acts of harassment and intimidation ranging from capricious surveillance and citations from city police to obscene and threatening letters and phone calls. One month earlier, on January 30, King’s house had been bombed. To this point in the protest, the city’s white business and political leadership had been utterly unyielding in its refusal to negotiate with the city’s black leaders. On the night of his conviction, King spoke to a mass rally at the Holt Street Baptist Church, the same church where a crowded audience had voted to launch the boycott in the first place the previous December. Before King spoke, the congregation joined together in singing such hymns as “We Shall Not Be Moved,” “Go, Send Me Oh Lord,” and “Walk Together, Children.” In his address, King proclaimed , “The protest is still on.” Echoing a constant theme from his early speeches, he reaffirmed his conviction that God would lead them to success: “We believe in God, and we believe that God controls the destiny of the universe, and Evil can’t triumph in this universe. This is our hope. This is the thing that keeps us going.” But then he warned his audience of what lay ahead: Whenever there is any great movement toward freedom, there will inevitably be some tension. Somebody will have to have the courage to sacrifice. You don’t get to the promised land without going through the 72 CHAPTER FOUR wilderness. Though we may not get to see the promised land, we know it’s coming because God is for it. So don’t worry about some of the things we have to go through. They are just a part of the great movement that we are making toward freedom. 1 As he had done in his original “Death of Evil on the Seashore” sermon , King called on the familiar story of the Exodus in an attempt to make sense of what he and his hearers were experiencing. Now, however, King faced a vastly different set of circumstances from those of the original sermon. The existence of a movement was no longer simply a rhetorical construction. For the first time in U.S. history, blacks in a major southern city had united in a campaign of collective action against racial injustice and were now struggling to sustain a mass protest that had brought risk and hardship to their lives and meeting stubborn and sometimes violent resistance to their efforts. Instead of delivering a Sunday sermon before his home congregation, he needed to convince a throng of protesters, many of them weary and discouraged, that their cause was just and that it would succeed. Not surprisingly, King’s use of the biblical story underwent a dramatic transformation in response to this new and daunting situation. This chapter explores that transformation by analyzing King’s speeches and sermons from the period during and just after the Montgomery bus boycott, which ran from December 5, 1955, until December 21, 1956, exploring the ways he adapted his initial formulation of the story in his “Death of Evil on the Seashore” sermon, given five months before the boycott had started, to address this new set of challenges . The chapter begins by tracing the early history of the boycott and offering an overview of the passages in King’s speeches from this period that employ the Exodus motif. Next, it analyzes ways that King altered his use of the story in both content and form in response to these challenges. Finally, it explains how, by using the biblical story, King constructed a symbolic framework for explaining the setbacks and disappointments protesters faced as the campaign wore on, even as he challenged them to remain faithful to the cause. The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Success and Setback As noted in the Introduction of this book, a number of long-standing obstacles had made the possibility of undertaking collective action Broken...


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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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