Martin Luther King’s Biblical Epic

Martin Luther King’s Biblical Epic

Keith D. Miller
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Martin Luther King’s Biblical Epic
    Book Description:

    In his final speech "I've Been to the Mountaintop," Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his support of African American garbage workers on strike in Memphis. Although some consider this oration King's finest, it is mainly known for its concluding two minutes, wherein King compares himself to Moses and seems to predict his own assassination. But King gave an hour-long speech, and the concluding segment can only be understood in relation to the whole. King scholars generally focus on his theology, not his relation to the Bible or the circumstance of a Baptist speaking in a Pentecostal setting. Even though King cited and explicated the Bible in hundreds of speeches and sermons, Martin Luther King's Biblical Epic is the first book to analyze his approach to the Bible and its importance to his rhetoric and persuasiveness.Martin Luther King's Biblical Epic argues that King challenged dominant Christian supersessionist conceptions of Judaism in favor of a Christianity that affirms Judaism as its wellspring. In his final speech, King implicitly but strongly argues that one can grasp Jesus only by first grasping Moses and the Hebrew prophets. This book also traces the roots of King's speech to its Pentecostal setting and to the Pentecostals in his audience. In doing so, Miller puts forth the first scholarship to credit the mostly unknown, but brilliant African American architect who created the large yet compact church sanctuary, which made possible the unique connection between King and his audience on the night of his last speech.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-109-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VIII)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. IX-X)
    (pp. XI-2)
  4. INTRODUCTION And Then I Got into Memphis
    (pp. 3-26)

    On the night of April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. entered Mason Temple in Memphis and unfurled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” It was his final speech and possibly his greatest.¹ It also barely happened.

    Joan Beifuss explains the baleful weather that night in Memphis:

    By early that evening storms were … tossing across the city, piles of white-streaked gray and purple clouds, storm light deepening the green of grass and shrubs, then heavy sullen blackness. Thunder could be heard off to the west, down the bluff, across the river, the first rain running ahead of the lightning.²


  5. CHAPTER 1 I Left Atlanta: King’s Religious Rhetoric
    (pp. 27-50)

    Not far from downtown Atlanta, people milled around grocery stores, banks, insurance companies, churches, and funeral parlors that clustered around Sweet Auburn Avenue. On Sunday mornings, some folks dressed in their finery and bustled toward Ebenezer Baptist Church, where they anticipated hearing the “powerful, thundering style” of their preacher, Rev. A. D. Williams.¹ The formidable Williams headed the Atlanta Missionary Baptist Association and served as branch president for a nascent organization with a long title—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He once traveled to Cleveland to deliver an address to an early national convention of the...

  6. CHAPTER 2 A Certain Man Fell among Thieves: King and the Parable of the Good Samaritan
    (pp. 51-61)

    A long with African American preachers, an extensive network of liberal, mainly white homilists and writers supplied King with extensive intellectual and rhetorical resources. Several figures in this network—one in particular—directly shaped an important argument in“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” In contrast to slave preachers, who lacked formal education, this leader, George Buttrick, was a well-known scholar and minister who, from 1955 until 1965, held a special position at Harvard.

    In this chapter I investigate King’s relationship to a group of liberal, largely white Protestant preachers and writers, including Buttrick, and King’s tendency to borrow and adjust their...

  7. CHAPTER 3 I’m Delighted to See Each of You Here Tonight: Pentecostalism and Mason Temple
    (pp. 62-70)

    When the garbage collectors and their supporters parked their rain-slicked cars beside Mason Temple, they did not walk into an ordinary house of worship. Named after Bishop C. H. Mason, Mason Temple served as the national headquarters for the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), a large, African American, Pentecostal denomination. King, a Baptist minister, did not often address congregations of COGIC or other Pentecostal and Holiness churches. But he realized that their members sometimes proved sympathetic to his leadership. In Albany, Georgia, he acknowledged the contributions that members of the COGIC had made to his civil rights campaign there.¹...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Across the Red Sea: The Exodus Continues
    (pp. 71-88)

    As King walked to the microphone at Mason Temple, he badly needed to reinvent the garbage workers’ strike and the city of Memphis. He also needed to resurrect the civil rights movement. So much had happened; so much had changed. And the change came very quickly.

    In 1947 Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball, raising the hopes of African Americans. Despite Robinson’s heroics on the diamond, almost no one anticipated that in 1954 the Supreme Court would inspire more hope by mandating the racial integration of all public schools in the United States. The wanton murder of a teenage boy,...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Fire on the Streets and in the Bones: King Revives Hebrew Prophecy
    (pp. 89-111)

    When King finishes his journey through time, he makes another huge move in his project of reimagining Memphis. Throughout his career, he failed to preach on the ethics of charity articulated in Proverbs. Instead, he embraced the more demanding ethics of justice announced in the Pentateuch and reiterated by the Hebrew prophets. Indeed, many people compared him to a Hebrew prophet; others, such as Rev. C. T. Vivian, a fellow activist, deemed him an actual prophet.¹ In “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King deinitely presents or constructs himself as a prophet.

    He begins by connecting distress in Memphis to broader...

  10. CHAPTER 6 If I Do Not Stop, What Will Happen to Them? King’s Rhetoric of the Body
    (pp. 112-128)

    While extending the Exodus and Hebrew prophecy in “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King also interprets the Christian Bible. In doing so, he carefully knits together Jewish and Christian themes. Early in this chapter I explain this process by analyzing his use of passages that resonate in the Hebrew Bible and in two books of the Christian Bible—Luke and Acts. Then I explicate his interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Next I investigate his implicit, but firm argument that Judaism forms the inescapable foundation for Christianity, an argument that radically reconceives a centuries-old tradition of domainant Christian...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: Julia Ward Howe, the Bible, and Memphis
    (pp. 129-157)

    Nearing the end of final speech, King approaches his “landing strip” as he describes his near-assassination in Harlem in 1958. Then, in his electrifying conclusion, he explains his visit to the mountaintop, his sight of the Promised Land, his prediction of his own possible death, and his vision of the Second Coming of Christ:

    Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop! And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life: Longevity has its place...

  12. CHAPTER 8 If I Had Merely Sneezed, I Would Have Died: King’s Biblical Interpretation
    (pp. 158-174)

    As an undergraduate at Morehouse College, King enrolled in two courses in the Bible taught by George Kelsey. A respected professor, Kelsey favored a scientific and historical approach that King had not encountered before. He warmed to Kelsey’s instruction and, in his second course from Kelsey, earned his only A at Morehouse. Later, during his years at Crozer Theological Seminary, King became more deeply immersed in the assumptions and practices of modern biblical criticism. One of his professors, Morton Enslin, had already served as president of a large, national scholarly organization called the Society of Biblical Literature; another of his...

  13. Appendix A: Text of “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”
    (pp. 175-182)
  14. Appendix B: The Parable of the Good Samaritan, as Told in Luke 10:25–37
    (pp. 183-183)
  15. Appendix C: The Murray/Buttrick Intertext
    (pp. 184-184)
  16. Appendix D: The Luccock/Buttrick Intertext
    (pp. 185-187)
  17. Appendix E: The Buttrick/King Intertext
    (pp. 188-190)
  18. Appendix F: The Murray/Buttrick/King Intertext
    (pp. 191-192)
  19. Appendix G: The Luccock/Buttrick/King Intertext
    (pp. 193-194)
  20. Appendix H: Liberal Protestant Commonplaces in “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”
    (pp. 195-200)
  21. Appendix I: Parallels for Segments of “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”
    (pp. 201-202)
  22. NOTES
    (pp. 203-222)
    (pp. 223-236)
  24. INDEX
    (pp. 237-245)