Martin Luther King’s Biblical Epic,
His Final, Great Speech
By: Keith D. Miller
Many persons have written doctoral dissertations about the preaching style of Martin Luther King Jr. I have read many of them since I teach preaching at the American Baptist Seminary of The West in Berkeley, California. In fact I thought I knew the insights about King’s preaching artistry, having listened to him preach many times and having read his sermons again and again, and having read what professors of preaching have said about his prophetic oratory. But I was in for a great surprise in reading Keith D. Miller, who teaches English at Arizona State University.
First of all it was eye opening to read the historical foundation for African American oratory. Professor Miller calls it rhetorical form or African American jeremiad. Most scholars over look Dr. King’s social location as being the cradle for speech. It is as if the culture of African American has a speech deficient, but Miller has respect for black church culture and her high view of scripture. The secret of African American rhetorical form is the taking of biblical stories out of the past and moving them into the present day events of the black experience.
Miller’s broad knowledge of African American oratory is inclusive of historians like Albert Raboteau, theologians like James Cone, and scripture scholars like J. Cameron Carter who describe African American rhetorical form from the lens of their respective disciplines. Whereas African American preachers used typological interpretations from Exodus and eschatological imagery from Revelation, white preachers who could not emotionally identify with the biblical events froze prophecy and petrified the Exodus.
Avishai Margalit in The Ethics of Memory argues that the Exodus event which Martin Luther King Jr. preached about many times represents closed memory. The event is final and unchangeable. However, Dr. King did not petrify the event into what Kenneth Burke called bureaucratized imagination. He used a literary or rhetorical form called entelechy which unveils new possibilities and potentialities. The writer of Second Isaiah makes use of this form in describing the possibilities of the New Exodus from Babylon. Some speakers such as Malcolm X interpreted the exodus literally, whereas Martin Luther King Jr. seeing new possibilities and potentialities interpreted the Exodus imaginatively.
King’s final public address was in Memphis, Tennessee at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ where Bishop J. O. Patterson was pastor and the presiding Bishop of the largest denomination of African American Church bodies. This speech was in support of two thousand trash collectors and their supporters. These workers were making only $1.65 an hour without medical or retirement benefits. They worked ten or twelve hours a day, but were paid for only eight hours a day. This last sermon on behalf of worker justice was the final great speech of Doctor King. In the great; “I’ve been to the Mountain Top” speech of extending biblical prophecy into the present, Dr. King uses the narrative method as his rhetorical form. He did not use abstract theological ideas as arguments to change the thinking of his listeners. He did not employ philosophical propositions to convey reasons for the just treatment of garbage workers. Dr. King used the narrative form to awaken sleeping consciences and to sensitize calloused hearts. In that sermon at Mason Temple he married his near death experiences as the result of a stabbing by a mentally deranged person with the biblical account of Moses’ ascent to the mountain prior to death. Students of speech for social change would learn by reading the book. Historians of social change and community organizers will find inspiration and information by reading “Martin Luther King’s Biblical Epic”.
J. Alfred Smith Sr., Pastor Emeritus
Allen Temple Baptist Church, Oakland, California
Professor of Preaching and Church Ministries,
American Baptist Seminary of The West, Berkeley, California