Message from the mountain top
He was one of the greatest orators in American history. His sermons and speeches still are performed by school children and at church services.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, which was delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Monument in the summer of 1962, as part of the “March on Washington.”
But what made the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. such a good and memorable preacher?
Several local people who speak publicly for a living, recently offered their assessments.
“I think Dr. King internalized his speeches better than anyone I have ever heard,” said Vince Watts, president and CEO of the Greater Stark County Urban League. “No doubt there was a lot of research and preparation that went into each word choice and phrase, but by the time he delivered the speech it seemed to the hearer that he was making it up as he went and every word was perfect. Who else could have come up with ‘...his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification.’ That’s not ordinary talk, those are special words strategically placed to bring about a particular reaction.”
“To understand Dr. Martin Luther King’s oratorical style is to understand that it is rooted in the ‘Black Preaching Tradition,’ ” said the Rev. Wilbur Allen III, senior pastor of All Saints Church of God in Christ in Canton. “The context of such is the black church. The history of black preaching spans from the invisible institution during slavery, to current palatial sanctuaries. The proclamation of God's word entails a unique style and theology that has ministered to slaves, sharecroppers as well as the contemporary African-American intelligentsia.”
“Even those parts of his speeches that were not completely original sounded fresh and new and real when Dr. King said them,” said Watts, himself a minister. “Dr. King was and, in the African-American community at least, still is the epitome of every speaker. Someone who can deliver a message, move the audience and spark action, all in less than 20 minutes. That is the desire of many audiences too.”
“I felt as if he were speaking to me and me alone,” said Rabbi Jon Adland of Temple Israel in Canton. “His words went right to my soul.”
“A word that stands out for me is passion,” said Thomas K. Carr, associate professor and department chair of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Mount Union in Alliance. “His whole heart was in the message ... It wasn’t a ‘head thing’ or just cognitive reflection. It was a passionate plea from the heart.”
Carr said King exemplifies the African-American gospel tradition where preaching can be fervent and emotional.
“Sometimes that can come off as kind of staged, but it wasn’t the case with him,” he said. “Secondly, he had such a good way of connecting with all people. His appeal, unlike some of the leaders who came after him, who tried to pick up the pieces, is that he appealed to people of all races and classes. He was speaking about the human condition. He appealed to the basic goodness in all people, for human rights.”
Carr added that King was effective because he refused to kowtow to politics. On April 4, 1967, King angered President Lyndon Johnson -- a supporter of civil rights -- with a landmark speech, “A Time to Break Silence,” detailing his opposition to the Vietnam War.
King also rejected the victimization angle, Carr added.
“That wasn’t part of his appeal,” he said. “He never appealed to people’s sympathy, but their compassion. That was a powerful part of his message.”
“As a Baptist minister, Martin King's preaching reflected the tutelage of the black church,” Allen said. “It is also clear that he was a gifted preacher. His gift was divinely inspired to impact the United States at a time of great change.”