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.
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.
Sometimes, it feels as though I know too much about Martin Luther King Jr.. I first learned about him in kindergarten after watching Our Friend, Martin. The movie frames Martin Luther King Jr. as the sole reason why segregation ended and why racism stopped existing in America. It is an interesting take. But it is also a movie that came out in 1999. In that time, little was really known about Martin Luther King Jr.. However, it was 1999 that the trial where the United States of America that was put on trial for the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. where it was ruled that our government had coordinated the assassination.
It is so interesting to think about the way Martin Luther King Jr. is talked about today. He was a martyr. He was lovely. He was perfect. Yet, he continually cheated on his wife and allowed someone to push Bayard Rustin out of the movement because Bayard Rustin was gay. The man was essentially hated by the end of his life. As he began to speak out about poverty and the Vietnam war, his approval rating dropped. I believe this was prime time for the US to assassinate him. However, I doubt the US completely thought out the impact Martin Luther King Jr.’s death would have on the movement. In fact, they probably did not predict the riots that would break out after his assassination.
I guess that is part of the reason the US pretends to love Martin Luther King Jr.. It is almost funny how Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by the same state that pretends to venerate him and drags his corpse and name through the mud in an attempt to quell Black discontent. It is almost funny that a car company sampled part of one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches to sell a truck. At this point in time, Martin Luther King Jr. no longer represents the people. He has become a part of the American imagination and has been run through the propaganda machine that so many go through.