While the history curriculum taught in school has been fixated on the overarching themes that map Martin Luther King Jr.’s character, insights into what truly made him extraordinary are harder to find. The “I Have A Dream” speech has been continuously referred to, studied and recited as a signal of his incredible ability to convey meaning and emotion just through words. However, this truly unique talent was honed over many years in Black churches and in front of Black audiences. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to influence and connect with listeners in ways others could not. He was, in fact, gifted in this area and led to his ability to change lives.
In “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King”, James Baldwin begins the essay with a deep examination of a Martin Luther King Jr. Church service. Church in the Black community was a staple. It was a place of refuge, fellowship, renewal, inspiration. In many cases, it served as a refueling station for the battle – a place to hold one over until next Sunday as one endure the constant fight of being Black in America. Preachers attempted to serve congregants in the best ways possible but also knew the suffering first hand. Martin Luther King Jr. truly brought something different to the struggle of his churchgoers. When Martin was preaching, he brought something different to his audience. Martin embodied the plight. He held himself on the same plane of struggle with the congregation and thus could truly walk with and inspire them. Baldwin knew something was different. Baldwin describes the “joy” within the church: “The joy which he filled this church, therefore, was the joy achieved by people who have ceased to delude themselves about an intolerable situation, who have found their prayers for a leader miraculously answered, and who now know that they can change their situation if they will.” This was a condition that could only be found when love, strength, and community were mixed together for an end cause. Martin’s preachings transcended the constant pressures placed upon the people by the outside world. The congregation was not simply receiving the sustenance to go another week but was receiving the strength and ability to believe that their situations will be altered. He gave them tangible hope. He gave them a roadmap to a better life. The ability for Martin to relay the ideas and hopes of change inside his congregation provided the groundwork for his public appearances and famous speeches.
Additionally, the importance of James Baldwin’s description of Martin Luther King’s congregation is poignant and informed. He was no amateur listener. As the stepson of a preacher, Baldwin attended many sermons but did not find the love he hoped to get from the church. The constant themes of judgment and punishment turned Baldwin away from the Church of his youth. However, in King’s Church, he saw that love filled the air. Love was an essential ingredient in the inspiration that Martin provided for his people, and it showed. He cared for all those who heard him and provided a message that lit a spark in all those that listened. Through this love, he was able to help his congregants, his community, the world fight for a better way.