Tracing Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons

Samuel G. Freedman / New York Times News Service /

Published Jun 22, 2013 at 05:00AM

When Jonathan Rieder was growing up in Philadelphia during the 1950s, infatuated with rockabilly and rhythm and blues, he sometimes rose early enough to inadvertently tune in to the Sunday morning gospel show on WHAT. Those worship songs sounded different from his favorites, which aimed more at the hips than the spirit. For the Rieder family, fervently unobservant even in its own Jewish faith, Christianity stood at an alien distance.

Yet Rieder, now 65, heard something in those long-ago gospel songs, something that introduced him to the culture of the black church and connected lyrics about divine deliverance to the civil rights issues that compelled him as a teenager to join the NAACP. He heard, as it turned out, the future direction of his academic career.

As America nears the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech in August, Rieder has become one of the most astute scholars of King as a preacher. In two consecutive books developed over nearly 20 years of research, Rieder has immersed himself in the subject of King as a pulpit minister who shaped his theology in sermons delivered to black congregations.

The public King, Rieder argues, cannot be understood without understanding the preacher’s talking black talk to black folk. Rieder’s new book, “Gospel of Freedom,” traces the evolution of both the “I Have A Dream” speech and the “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” King’s most renowned written work, through years of his obscure sermons.

“In truth, the ‘Letter’ was less formal rhetoric or a philosophical treatise than a transcribed form of oral culture,” Rieder writes. “King’s brilliance was always as a master of the spoken word; that is why listening to him is so important. Moreover, the ‘Letter’ was a mélange of riffs, samples, stories, gambits, and allusions, many of which came from his addresses to black people.”

Perhaps the ultimate confirmation that Rieder, the white Jew, got black Christianity right came last month from the Rev. James Forbes, one of the leading black ministers of King’s generation.

“This man knows the story of King intimately,” Forbes told an audience at Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem. “In this book, unlike many that speak primarily of a King that was a civil rights leader, he plumbs the depth of the spirituality out of which that leadership came.”

Rieder’s book stakes very specific turf in the corpus of King scholarship with its relentless focus on King the preacher. By doing so, as Forbes pointed out in his comments, Rieder is restoring the overtly religious element to King and the freedom movement. While African-Americans readily grasp the link, many white liberals diminish or ignore it out of discomfort with religion being granted a role — even a positive one — in political discourse.

“The image of liberal secular King misses the essential role of prophetic Christianity,” Rieder, a professor of sociology at Barnard College in New York, said in a recent interview. “Jesus wasn’t just an interesting historical figure to King. He saw Jesus as a continuation of the prophets. He has a powerful association with Jesus.”

Addressing fellow blacks in suffering rather than whites needing to be convinced of his reasonable nature, King spoke with both righteous anger and pastoral tenderness. His sermons to black congregations included some of the later catchphrases of the “I Have A Dream” speech — “Free at last,” “Let freedom ring.”

“We forget this aspect of King,” Rieder said. “In the workaday sermons, you hear King answering the existential questions. ‘Have you been disappointed in love? Do you fear death?’ King would often merge ‘Is your heart broken?’ with the slow pace of civil rights. He had to convince black people there is a balm in Gilead, and not just in the next world. He had the resource of a living creator who’s interested in your freedom in this world.”

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