Chapter 5. Reaching out for Canaan: King’s “Birth of a New Nation” Sermon
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91 Chapter 5 reaching out for canaan King’s “Birth of a New Nation” Sermon 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 power, which officially took place on March 17, 1957, was remarkably peaceful, coming at the end of several years of nonviolent protest and agitation led by the American-educated African leader. The event had a deep impact on King, confirming his emphasis on the worldwide nature of the struggle against oppression and demonstrating the effectiveness of nonviolent protest as a strategy for achieving that goal. His invitation to attend the event also signaled his status as “a symbol of liberation for an international constituency.”1 Exactly one month after Ghana’s independence, on April 7, 1957, King recounted his experience in a sermon at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery titled, “The Birth of a New Nation.” Employing the same strategy he had used in his original “Death of Evil on the Seashore” sermon and in his boycott rhetoric, King placed the Ghanaians’ struggle for independence within a larger narrative framework provided by the Exodus story, briefly pointing his hearers to the story itself, applying that story to a successful struggle for freedom elsewhere in the world, and finally, drawing the lessons from the worldwide struggle, seen through the lens of the Exodus, for his own movement. In fact, the sermon presents the most complete, paradigmatic application of the Exodus story to the struggle for racial justice of King’s career. At the same time, the address, delivered in response to a new and complex rhetorical situation, reflected King’s continuing program of adapting the cultural myth to changing circumstances . 92 CHAPTER FIVE This chapter analyzes the way that King, in his “Birth of a New Nation” sermon, offered a construction of the history of Ghana’s exploitation and liberation, framed within the symbolic context of the Exodus, as a response to this new rhetorical situation. It traces the continuing evolution of his use of the biblical narrative, noting particularly the way that King configured both the myth and the “history ” within a “hermeneutic circle,” one that highlighted the mythical significance of the “history” while at the same time providing “empirical ” evidence for the myth. In so doing, King found the resources to address the demands of his immediate situation even as he sought to lift the vision of his hearers so that they would see themselves as part of a dramatic, global revolution in the fortunes of persons of color. The chapter begins with an overview of the rhetorical situation King faced as he addressed his congregation that morning, followed by a summary of the sermon as a whole, an account of the particular ways that King continued the Exodus tradition, and an explanation of his strategy of configuring myth and history in a reciprocal interpretive relationship. It concludes by detailing the ways that this strategy enabled King to address the challenges he faced as leader of the newly emerging civil rights movement. Post-Boycott: International Prestige and Local Disillusionment In the fourteen months following the start of the Montgomery bus boycott in December 1955, King’s leadership of the campaign had catapulted him onto the national and even the international stage. In the closing months of 1956 and into 1957, King was highly sought after as a speaker, making more than fifty speaking appearances during the spring and summer of 1957. On February 10, 1957, he was a featured guest on NBC’s nationally broadcast Sunday television program, The Open Mind. Eight days later his photograph filled the cover of Time magazine’s February 18, 1957 edition, and on February 10, the date set by the National Council of Churches for the thirty-fifth annual observance of Race Relations Sunday, a message he penned was read from pulpits all across the nation. This broad exposure reflected not only King’s popularity as a civil rights leader, but also his vision for the movement. What had started inauspiciously as a local protest demanding a more predictable but reaching out for canaan 93 still racially segregated seating arrangement on the city’s buses had evolved into a movement for racial equality that received national and international...


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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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