The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Overview

“You don’t know me,” Martin Luther King, Jr., once declared to those who criticized his denunciation of the Vietnam War, who wanted to confine him to the ghetto of “black” issues. Now, forty years after being felled by an assassin’s bullet, it is still difficult to take the measure of the man: apostle of peace or angry prophet; sublime exponent of a beloved community or fiery Moses leading his people up from bondage; black preacher or translator of blackness to the white world?
This book explores the extraordinary performances through which King played with all of these possibilities, and others too, blending and gliding in and out of idioms and identities. Taking us deep into King’s backstage discussions with colleagues, his preaching to black congregations, his exhortations in mass meetings, and his crossover addresses to whites, Jonathan Rieder tells a powerful story about the tangle of race, talk, and identity in the life of one of America’s greatest moral and political leaders.
A brilliant interpretive endeavor grounded in the sociology of culture, The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me delves into the intricacies of King’s sermons, speeches, storytelling, exhortations, jokes, jeremiads, taunts, repartee, eulogies, confessions, lamentation, and gallows humor, as well as the author’s interviews with members of King’s inner circle. The King who emerges is a distinctively modern figure who, in straddling the boundaries of diverse traditions, ultimately transcended them all.
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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post Book World

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… 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… By the conclusion of this invaluable [book], 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.'
— Adam Fairclough

Los Angeles Times Book Review

[A] rich, thoughtful new book… The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me is an extremely learned book, one that Rieder has been working on for almost two decades… Anyone who takes the time to peruse The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me will have no doubt: The real Martin Luther King Jr. more often sounded like Jeremiah Wright than like Barack Obama.
— David J. Garrow

Washington Post

[This] important book on King's rhetoric offers a more complex view of King than the sanitized version that is so popular, especially among conservative commentators.
— E. J. Dionne, Jr.

Newsweek

[The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me] does a service to King's legacy, by lifting the layers of oversimplifying myth and legend to reveal a deeper, more complex man.
— Allison Samuels

New York Times Book Review

[An] admirably diligent book… Rieder also skillfully debunks the idea that the 'black'-talking King was 'real,' while the one who invoked Reinhold Niebuhr was a mere performer (like a stand-up comic, for instance), trying to appeal to powerful whites. Both Kings were real. It was hardly unknown for him to mention the likes of agape and Martin Buber to black audiences, and they were thrilled at the display of erudition.
— John McWhorter

The Nation

Eye-opening… While the various Pulitzer Prize–winning biographies of King have documented his political trajectory with admirable precision, they have also shied away from exploring the patterns of King's mind, how his faith was channeled into language that mixed polish and fervor, aggression and empathy, as it confronted the dilemmas of black liberation. Rieder provides the best anatomy of King's verbal imagination yet.
— Scott Saul

First Things

The question of black identity is maddeningly complicated. In an extraordinary new book, The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jonathan Rieder details the different cultures and subcultures to which Dr. King tailored his message with striking success. He could, in turn, be raucous, smooth, erudite, eloquent, vulgar, and even salacious. This does not mean he was a chameleon or a hypocrite. Rather, says Rieder, 'he had an uncommon ability to glide in and out of black, white, and other idioms and identities in an elaborate dance of empathy.' He adds, 'The constant for King lay beyond language, beyond performance, beyond race. The core of the man was the power of his faith, his love of humanity, and an irrepressible resolve to free black people, and other people too.' From his actions on the public stage and from our times together, that is how I remember Dr. King.
— Richard John Neuhaus

Choice

Sociologist Rieder has produced a careful reading of Martin Luther King Jr.'s many speaking styles. Pulling together his backstage talk with black comrades, sermons, speeches in the mass rallies of the Civil Rights Movement, writings, and major public addresses, Rieder shows King's tremendous skill in weaving together many different kinds of sources into the right form for each audience. The author argues against the view that King was authentic when speaking in a black idiom to a black audience, but artfully accommodating when using 'white material' before a white audience. Instead, Rieder shows that King drew easily on black folk expressions, highbrow theology, the Founding Fathers, gospel music, and, especially, the rich language of the Bible to express himself genuinely before all kinds of audiences. This book is especially valuable in comparing written versus spoken versions of the same sermons and speeches, and versions given before predominantly white and black audiences. Rieder does not paper over King's sex talk, racial jokes, unacknowledged borrowing, and outright plagiarism, but puts all of this in the context of King's real mastery of moving, prophetic speech.
— B. Weston

David Hollinger
A marvelous book, really special, and quite different from even the best of the King books. Jonathan Rieder demonstrates that King exemplified postethnic ideals, refusing to abandon either the distinctive solidarity of black people or the mutual support that human beings could offer one another across the lines of color and faith.
Charles Johnson
Jonathan Rieder saves Martin Luther King, Jr. from the curse of canonization. He replaces the hagiographic, air-brushed images, and the kitschy plastic dolls with a brilliant reading of King's chameleon-like gift for effortlessly gliding—in public and private—between ethnic and universal idioms, between the street and theological seminars. The Word of the Lord is Upon Me is, then, a superb addition to King scholarship that restores our perception of this great man's complexity, flaws, scars and profound humanity.
Randall Kennedy
A stunning book that offers a genuinely fresh take on the most prominent figure of the civil rights movement. Jonathan Rieder's interpretation of King is not just incisive; it is eloquent and original.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr., the voice of the Civil Rights Movement, knew more than most that words matter, that they are fundamental to any truly democratic mass political movement. In this absolutely brilliant new book, Jonathan Rieder shows how King crafted his rhetoric with a total command of the English language in its standard English register and its African American idioms. Rieder movingly represents King as a master performer who was never less than authentic, who always matched action to thought as manifested in the beauty of his words… Fantastic, an amazing book.
E. J. Dionne
[This] important book on King's rhetoric offers a more complex view of King than the sanitized version that is so popular, especially among conservative commentators.
Washington Post Book World - Adam Fairclough
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… 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… By the conclusion of this invaluable [book], 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.'
Los Angeles Times Book Review - David J. Garrow
[A] rich, thoughtful new book… The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me is an extremely learned book, one that Rieder has been working on for almost two decades… Anyone who takes the time to peruse The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me will have no doubt: The real Martin Luther King Jr. more often sounded like Jeremiah Wright than like Barack Obama.
Newsweek - Allison Samuels
[The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me] does a service to King's legacy, by lifting the layers of oversimplifying myth and legend to reveal a deeper, more complex man.
New York Times Book Review - John McWhorter
[An] admirably diligent book… Rieder also skillfully debunks the idea that the 'black'-talking King was 'real,' while the one who invoked Reinhold Niebuhr was a mere performer (like a stand-up comic, for instance), trying to appeal to powerful whites. Both Kings were real. It was hardly unknown for him to mention the likes of agape and Martin Buber to black audiences, and they were thrilled at the display of erudition.
The Nation - Scott Saul
Eye-opening… While the various Pulitzer Prize–winning biographies of King have documented his political trajectory with admirable precision, they have also shied away from exploring the patterns of King's mind, how his faith was channeled into language that mixed polish and fervor, aggression and empathy, as it confronted the dilemmas of black liberation. Rieder provides the best anatomy of King's verbal imagination yet.
First Things - Richard John Neuhaus
The question of black identity is maddeningly complicated. In an extraordinary new book, The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jonathan Rieder details the different cultures and subcultures to which Dr. King tailored his message with striking success. He could, in turn, be raucous, smooth, erudite, eloquent, vulgar, and even salacious. This does not mean he was a chameleon or a hypocrite. Rather, says Rieder, 'he had an uncommon ability to glide in and out of black, white, and other idioms and identities in an elaborate dance of empathy.' He adds, 'The constant for King lay beyond language, beyond performance, beyond race. The core of the man was the power of his faith, his love of humanity, and an irrepressible resolve to free black people, and other people too.' From his actions on the public stage and from our times together, that is how I remember Dr. King.
Choice - B. Weston
Sociologist Rieder has produced a careful reading of Martin Luther King Jr.'s many speaking styles. Pulling together his backstage talk with black comrades, sermons, speeches in the mass rallies of the Civil Rights Movement, writings, and major public addresses, Rieder shows King's tremendous skill in weaving together many different kinds of sources into the right form for each audience. The author argues against the view that King was authentic when speaking in a black idiom to a black audience, but artfully accommodating when using 'white material' before a white audience. Instead, Rieder shows that King drew easily on black folk expressions, highbrow theology, the Founding Fathers, gospel music, and, especially, the rich language of the Bible to express himself genuinely before all kinds of audiences. This book is especially valuable in comparing written versus spoken versions of the same sermons and speeches, and versions given before predominantly white and black audiences. Rieder does not paper over King's sex talk, racial jokes, unacknowledged borrowing, and outright plagiarism, but puts all of this in the context of King's real mastery of moving, prophetic speech.
Washington Post
[This] important book on King's rhetoric offers a more complex view of King than the sanitized version that is so popular, especially among conservative commentators.
— E. J. Dionne Jr.
Newsweek
[The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me] does a service to King's legacy, by lifting the layers of oversimplifying myth and legend to reveal a deeper, more complex man.
— Allison Samuels
Choice
Sociologist Rieder has produced a careful reading of Martin Luther King Jr.'s many speaking styles. Pulling together his backstage talk with black comrades, sermons, speeches in the mass rallies of the Civil Rights Movement, writings, and major public addresses, Rieder shows King's tremendous skill in weaving together many different kinds of sources into the right form for each audience. The author argues against the view that King was authentic when speaking in a black idiom to a black audience, but artfully accommodating when using "white material" before a white audience. Instead, Rieder shows that King drew easily on black folk expressions, highbrow theology, the Founding Fathers, gospel music, and, especially, the rich language of the Bible to express himself genuinely before all kinds of audiences. This book is especially valuable in comparing written versus spoken versions of the same sermons and speeches, and versions given before predominantly white and black audiences. Rieder does not paper over King's sex talk, racial jokes, unacknowledged borrowing, and outright plagiarism, but puts all of this in the context of King's real mastery of moving, prophetic speech.
— B. Weston
The Nation
Eye-opening...While the various Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of King have documented his political trajectory with admirable precision, they have also shied away from exploring the patterns of King's mind, how his faith was channeled into language that mixed polish and fervor, aggression and empathy, as it confronted the dilemmas of black liberation. Rieder provides the best anatomy of King's verbal imagination yet.
— Scott Saul
New York Times Book Review
[An] admirably diligent book...Rieder also skillfully debunks the idea that the "black"-talking King was "real," while the one who invoked Reinhold Niebuhr was a mere performer (like a stand-up comic, for instance), trying to appeal to powerful whites. Both Kings were real. It was hardly unknown for him to mention the likes of agape and Martin Buber to black audiences, and they were thrilled at the display of erudition.
— John McWhorter
First Things
The question of black identity is maddeningly complicated. In an extraordinary new book, The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jonathan Rieder details the different cultures and subcultures to which Dr. King tailored his message with striking success. He could, in turn, be raucous, smooth, erudite, eloquent, vulgar, and even salacious. This does not mean he was a chameleon or a hypocrite. Rather, says Rieder, “he had an uncommon ability to glide in and out of black, white, and other idioms and identities in an elaborate dance of empathy.” He adds, “The constant for King lay beyond language, beyond performance, beyond race. The core of the man was the power of his faith, his love of humanity, and an irrepressible resolve to free black people, and other people too.” From his actions on the public stage and from our times together, that is how I remember Dr. King.
— Richard John Neuhaus
Publishers Weekly

This largely admiring but flawed analysis explores King, with his "extraordinary performances," as chameleon, consummate showman, exalted Mosaic leader, treacly icon, postethnic man and crossover artist. Sociologist Rieder (Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism) argues that King's powers of rhetoric allowed him to straddle and dissolve boundaries between black and white and draws patronizing distinctions between King's "black talk" and "white talk" (King "even went so far as to use the word 'ontological' in one homily"). Perhaps in an avoidance of academese, Rieder slips into the gossipy ("despite his cavorting, King did not stray with white women") and the flippant ("Surely King's love of ribs and chitterlings was out of sync with the vegetarianism of the 'little brown man,' as King sometimes referred to Gandhi"). While acknowledging that the work of sociolinguist Dell Hymes "informs this entire book," Rieder does not show how he uses Hymes's model. Rieder ends up with a commonplace argument-that King used different voices in talking to intimate friends and public audiences, in speaking as pastor and as political figure ("His oratory in the meetings was a means to ends... quite different from those at play in church contemplation or backstage talk with friends"). No news that. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In his latest work, Rieder (sociology, Barnard Coll.; Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism) provides fresh insight into the mass appeal of Martin Luther King Jr. to different communities by examining the structure and background influences of the rhetoric of his public sermons and speeches. The first section looks at the literary expressions King used when dealing primarily with black audiences. The second studies the rhetorical conflict that developed in his preaching between his race and the religious call for universalism. The third identifies the change in King's preaching style as he began to address larger, more diverse audiences. And the final section examines the effectiveness of King's crossover appeal through the use of rhetoric that stressed universality and the notion of the beloved community. While the book is well written and offers a new perspective on King's effectiveness as a public speaker, its thematic rather than chronological approach makes it difficult to read and to follow clearly the author's argument. Recommended more for academic libraries and only for large public libraries having comprehensive religion collections or a close relationship to King's public appearances.
—Charles Murray

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674046986
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2010
  • Pages: 408
  • Sales rank: 712,119
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Table of Contents

1 The Artistry of Argument 1

Pt. I Inside the Circle of the Tribe

2 The Geometry of Belonging 21

3 Brotherhood and Brotherhood 32

4 Backstage and Blackstage 50

5 Race Men and Real Men 64

6 The Prophetic Backstage 75

Pt. II Son Of A (Black) Preacher Man

7 Flight from the Folk? 91

8 Homilies of Black Liberation 110

9 Raw and Refined 131

Pt. III King in the Mass Meetings

10 Beloved Black Community 158

11 The Physics of Deliverance 179

12 The Rationality of Defiance 199

13 The Courage to Be 219

14 Free Riders and Freedom Riders 237

Pt. IV Crossing Over Into Beloved Community

15 Artifice and Authenticity 254

16 Practicing What You Preach 267

17 Validating the Movement 286

18 The Allure of Rudeness 302

19 Black Interludes in the Crossover Moment 318

Notes 339

Index 383

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