The Preacher King: Martin Luther King and the Word That Moved America
by Richard Lischer, Oxford University Press, 344 pages .
Richard Lischer, Professor of Homiletics at the Divinity School of Duke University, argues in this excellent study of Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetoric that once the civil rights leader became generally admired by both black and white Americans, his followers softened many of his published sermons, editing out his less universal references and less harmonious moments on the pulpit to fit the image of the preacher of Gandhian love. A vital part of him was lost in the process, contends Lischer, who began the project after a student told him she found the great orator’s words “pretty dry” reading. Lischer was puzzled and was moved to use audiotapes to correct the sanitized transcripts and to analyze King in his full, heated eloquence. “As no preacher in the twentieth century and no politician since Lincoln,” he writes, ” [King] transposed the Judeo-Christian themes of love, suffering, deliverance, and justice from the sacred shelter of the pulpit into the arena of public policy.”
The King Lischer found worked with about a hundred set pieces, which he inserted into whatever sermon he was giving as his feeling dictated. His famous “I Have a Dream” sequence, which grew partly from a SNCC volunteer’s prayer and which King had previously delivered in Detroit, was not even written into the original draft of his speech at the Lincoln Memorial. In King’s hands Sheriff Bull Connor became “pharaoh” as he elevated local conflicts and expanded the movement, and “ordinary Southern towns became theaters of divine revelation.” Lischer’s researches result in a kind of biography of King’s political vision. “Not only his admirers but even his most adamant critics have not fathomed the depths of his militancy,” he writes. But in the end King, disappointed by white America and not ready to go over to the black-power movement, at last fell back on the religion that had made him who he was.