His Own Man

Reviewed by Adam Fairclough
Sunday, April 6, 2008


The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Jonathan Rieder

Belknap. 394 pp. $29.95

We have heard a lot in recent weeks about the distinctive language and theology of the African American church. Exposed to snippets of Jeremiah Wright's sermons, white Americans heard unpatriotic rants tinged by bitterness and paranoia. To black Americans, on the other hand, the Chicago pastor's preaching expresses righteous indignation over injustice, a voice that comports with the prophetic role that history has assigned to the black minister. After all, black churches owed their existence to the racism that permeated white denominations, and black ministers possessed the independence to preach a gospel of freedom. The black church has been rightly proud of its commitment to the brotherhood of man, and it has never been truly segregated in the sense of excluding white people. At the same time, however, the black church has encouraged racial solidarity, black leadership and even black nationalism.

As Jonathan Rieder recognizes in The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me, Martin Luther King Jr. embodied the tension between the moral universalism of the black church and its racially specific character. Leading a movement dedicated to the destruction of racial barriers, King extolled the ideal of integration in hauntingly beautiful language. Yet King's own organization was specifically designed to be a black organization, not an interracial one. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference rested upon a base of African American churches. It accepted help from whites but insisted that primary leadership rest firmly in black hands.

Early studies of King all but ignored his roots in the black church. Instead, impressed by his erudition and captivated by his dream, biographers emphasized how the study of theologians and philosophers -- Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, Hegel, Marx -- shaped King's outlook. After all, these were the very thinkers whom King himself cited when he wrote about his "pilgrimage to non-violence."

As the ideal of integration faded, however, a new wave of King scholars downplayed the debt that he owed to these white intellectual heavyweights. They argued that King owed far more to black religious culture than to his formal studies at seminary and university. His academic credentials turned out to be less than they appeared: His PhD thesis was heavily plagiarized. Much of what he published, moreover, bore the fingerprints of ghostwriters. In stressing his debt to white thinkers, therefore, King engaged in a kind of intellectual name-dropping intended to impress white, middle-class sympathizers. In reality, his core values had already been formed before he left home, thanks to his upbringing in Ebenezer Baptist Church, where his father was pastor. King was first and foremost a black Baptist preacher who, these scholars contend, derived his homiletic techniques from an African American preaching style that had its roots in slavery.

Rieder, a professor at Barnard College, rejects the polarized debate over the "real" King. Focusing on the words he spoke in public and in private, and examining his interactions with the blacks and whites who were closest to him, Rieder shows that attempts to define King in terms of white and black influences distort the man and his message. Whether speaking to blacks or whites, King articulated a consistent moral vision that drew upon the Bible, the tenets of liberal Protestantism, the insights of philosophy, and an idealism that was quintessentially American.

What, then, did blackness mean to King? In pursuing his moral vision of a "beloved community," King did not reject his racial heritage or identity. Although he straddled the black and white worlds, the black one remained more personal and intimate. While he attended Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University, his closest friends were other black students. The inner world of SCLC was one of "race man ideologies, black Christian nationalism," and "a mystique of manliness." His closest colleagues were other black ministers, in whose company King indulged in mocking racial banter and black machismo. He extolled racial pride and empathized with "the bitterness of fellow blacks."

Yet King's blackness, Rieder argues, was more style than substance, and it "never came close to a full-fledged 'black theology.' " Moreover, King never regarded black identity as fixed or sufficient. He struggled to overcome his own anti-white feelings. Deeply attached to the black church, he frankly criticized its shortcomings. Although to white ears his preaching sounded black, King actually derived many of his sermons from white ministers. Far from confining his philosophical references to white audiences, he drew upon his erudition to educate his staff, his parishioners and the ordinary blacks who attended the mass meetings of the civil rights movement. He regularly brainstormed with a group of secular-minded New York intellectuals. His closest adviser was a Jew. By the conclusion of this invaluable study, Rieder's argument is wholly convincing: The key to King's leadership "lay in the substance of his arguments and the commitments that animated it." ยท

Adam Fairclough, author of "To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr.," is the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Professor of American History at Leiden University in Holland.

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