In James Baldwin’s recollection of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon, he notes that King implored his Black audience to fix problems in the Black world in addition to critiquing the constraints of the white world. King tells the crowd to save money, stop committing crimes, and tell the white man that segregation is wrong. Baldwin writes that, though King’s directions elicited a wave of laughter, “he had meant every word he said, and he expected his hearers to act on them” (Baldwin, 644). Further, “they also expected this of themselves, which is not the usual effect of a sermon; and that they are living up to their expectations no white man in Montgomery will deny” (Baldwin, 643). At first reading, I felt reluctant to agree with King’s directives despite his audience’s willingness to act on them. He seems to understate how the white world still impacts these problems in the Black world. Whites restricted African-American access to good-paying jobs that would allow them to save money. The crime rate is a direct result of poverty and racism that African-Americans dealt with much more than their fellow Americans. Further, standing up to a white man risked all sorts of consequences, especially in the hierarchical world of the South. Thus, I first felt that King was somewhat harsh to his Black parishioners.
However, after more reflection, I feel that King’s sermon delivers a necessary ingredient for energizing the civil rights movement: hope. In his directives, King seemingly rejects the outlook on the world that plagues Bigger Thomas in Native Son. The white world crushes Bigger and seemingly robs him of his agency and, thus, his humanity. This idea is the central point of Baldwin’s critique to Native Son. Driven by forces outside his control, Bigger does not have the power to control his own fate. However, in King’s directives, he stresses to the faithful that they can do something to change their reality. They are not locked into a world of pain and suffering that plagues Bigger. Even if saving money, preventing crime, and speaking up to white men about segregation do not end racism or gain political rights, the ability to act empowers people and gives them a sense of humanity that Bigger never fully claims. By fighting against their reality, African-Americans in King’s church gain agency in their future. Thus, King’s directions to his audience give them hope that they themselves have the power to change the world, rebuking the force-driven reality of Bigger Thomas.