Chapter 6. I’ve been to the mountaintop: King as the Movement’s Moses
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115 Chapter 6 I’ve been to the mountaintop King as the Movement’s Moses When he addressed the Montgomery bus boycott’s first mass meeting on the night of December 5, 1955, King, just weeks from his twentyseventh 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 a relative newcomer to the city and had not yet had opportunity to offend any of the major factions in the black community.1 When he stood before that throng of faces crowded into the Holt Street Baptist Church, he had no real authority to command their respect or cooperation, save what black Christians traditionally accorded to any gospel preacher. Within little more than a year, King would become a figure of international reputation, fulfilling speaking engagements all over the country, being featured in the national media and gracing the cover of Time magazine, and representing the movement across the globe. Given his initial obscurity, King’s rise to become the “face” of the civil rights movement in so short a time was nothing less than meteoric. Certainly, a number of factors can be offered to account for King’s emergence as the movement’s leader. His status as a member of an elite, educated black middle class was itself a badge of respect in the African American community. He had recently completed a Ph.D. from Boston University and served as minister of one of Montgomery ’s most well-educated and economically prosperous congregations , the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. King was also clearly a charismatic orator. Further, once the movement began to receive the attention of the local and then the national media, members of the press naturally looked for a single individual that they could focus on 116 CHAPTER SIX as the campaign’s spokesperson and representative, a role that King exploited with remarkable skill. Central to this process, however, was one critical factor on which these other elements were predicated and to which they all contributed . This factor had to do with the way that King fulfilled his hearers ’ fervent expectation for the appearance of a black Moses. Given the central place that Moses held in the social knowledge that blacks brought to the protest, it was inevitable that his hearers would seek out characteristics in King that reminded them of the mythical hero. At the same time, within a year of the campaign’s start, King began to assume that rhetorical persona explicitly and even self-consciously, using the kind of language about going to the “mountaintop” and seeing the “Promised Land” that would become immortalized more than a decade later in his address to the striking sanitation workers in Memphis on April 3, 1968. His emergence as the movement’s leader and symbol thus resulted from something of a reciprocal process through which he and his audience negotiated an identity for King within the biblical narrative that they believed themselves to be reliving. This chapter traces the process through which King assumed the persona of the biblical hero, a process that initially identified King as the faithful , prophetic “narrator” of his audience’s modern-day Exodus but that soon positioned him as a central character within the narrative itself, as the Moses who would lead his people to the Promised Land. The Moses Persona In ancient theater, the persona referred literally to the mask worn by an actor in a dramatic production and, from this usage, naturally came to denote the character or dramatic role assumed by the actor, as distinct from the identity of the actor himself or herself.2 By donning the mask, the actor “became the persona that the mask symbolized.”3 Working from this understanding of persona as, in Campbell’s words, “the imaginary, the fictive being implied by and embedded in a literary or dramatic work,”4 a number of scholars examining a wide assortment of discourse have highlighted the way that assuming a particular role or identity is a crucial dimension through which rhetors gain a sympathetic hearing among their audiences.5 Casey, for example, noted that a central rhetorical strategy through which women preachers in colonial America sought to legitimate their own public-speaking I’ve been to the mountaintop 117 practices was to assume the persona of the biblical prophets, a strategy that pitted an assumption of direct...



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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