Martin Luther King and the Preaching Tradition
As the son, grandson and great-grandson of black Southern Baptist preachers, the tradition of speaking from the pulpit was deeply ingrained in Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Today, his sermons continue to be seen as a measurement by which all other sermons are judged. Phillip Martin speaks with the Reverend Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. of New York's Riverside Church about King's impact.
ED GORDON, host:
I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a civil rights leader, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and an accomplished writer. But perhaps more than anything else, King was a preacher. Today his sermons continue to be seen as a measurement by which all other sermons are judged. It's a view shared by the Reverend James A. Forbes Jr. Reverend Forbes is a senior minister at New York's Riverside Church and is known in national and international circles as `the preacher's preacher.' He spoke with NPR's Phillip Martin about King's impact on the preaching tradition.
Reverend JAMES A. FORBES Jr. (Riverside Church): Dr. King's style actually has probably impacted all of us preachers here in the United States of America. The first impact was that he always combined a kind of approach to thought and to feeling. He addressed your head. You had to think in a King sermon, but you also were going to feel. Any sermon that I preach, if it does not challenge people to think, that's not quite getting, and if it does not move them to feel, it doesn't get it.
PHILLIP MARTIN reporting:
And what about that preaching style would you say stands out in the minds of the American people and our ears?
Rev. FORBES: Well, I think that there was a kind of magic about the cadence and the tone of his voice and the way he actually started quite frequently fairly slow, but slowly you were enveloped and you were a part of his pace; you moved along with him. He engaged you. I mean, often he would ask a question repeatedly, and even if you didn't get a chance to answer back, you thought back an answer. It was a dialogical process. It was an interactive process.
(Soundbite of sermon)
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr.: When will you be satisfied?
Unidentified Woman: Never!
Dr. KING: We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro is ...(unintelligible) of all the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
Dr. KING: As long as our heart is heavy with the fatigue of travel...
MARTIN: Now I would assume that the topics that were chosen or the topics addressed by King also influenced his speaking style.
Rev. FORBES: Yes, I think the fact that almost always he was addressing issues that were current in the day, social, economic and political. But he brought the biblical story to bear and often would tell the story and then apply it, or sometimes would describe the nature of the crisis and then bring a biblical image to bear on it.
MARTIN: Reverend Forbes, you've cited a key word, and that is `image.'
Rev. FORBES: Yes. I often say that Dr. King's sermons included images that captured the imagination of the soul. Now that's a mouthful right there. I mean, when he talked about the world house together, meaning that everybody in this world's gotta learn how to live together, you don't miss that. When he talked about the fact that you're making strides towards freedom, you can actually see in your mind the movement. When he talked about the walls come tumbling down, the walls of segregation, or if he were talking about a jail cell, he would talk about Daniel in the lion's den.
His messages had images, but the images always were muscular; by that, I mean his images required you to think about what action is necessary in order to rise to the occasion. Whatever he said, the image managed to get both into your mind and then it would, in a sense, trickle down into your soul and eventually it would be down to your feet where you were ready to take some action about what he said.
MARTIN: Reverend Forbes, you're known as `the preacher's preacher,' and you delivered quite an address at the the Democratic National Convention. How do you think you were personally affected by the speaking style of MLK?
Rev. FORBES: Well, number one, I was not affected by (with resonance) `trying to sound like him. Now we have these problems we must fa'--some preachers tried to actually imitate the sound of his voice. For me, I think he affected me with respect to make it clear, have the courage not to fuzz it up with all sorts of ambiguities, and make it so that when people hear you speak, they know what you are addressing and they know what you are urging people to do about it. So it affected me that way. It has always affected that I do not preach just to the soul of people, because if I preach to your soul and it has no impact on what you do in terms of your energy, your influence, your politics, then I am assuming that that's an ineffective sermon.
MARTIN: Sir, finally, which Martin Luther King Jr. speech in particular do you believe best sums up the oratorical skills of this man?
Rev. FORBES: Well, let me tell you, you know, when you're having a dive, you score the dive on the degree of difficulty of the dive. When Dr. King stood up at the Riverside Church on a Sun--on that night when he was addressing clergy and laity concerned and he preached a sermon, `a time to end silence,' when he gave that sermon, here is a guy who knew that it was unpopular, had been counseled, `Do not mix civil rights with an assault against the war,' he stood there in a confident mode, laying out the argument and actually taking on the unfair, unjust war in Vietnam.
(Soundbite of sermon)
Dr. KING: We were taking the black young men who have been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they have not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.
Rev. FORBES: But again, you've got to think about `I see the promised land.' That one is a sermon that you really discover that no matter what they say about the rest of us preachers, King was in a class by himself.
MARTIN: Thank you, sir.
Rev. FORBES: And thank you.
GORDON: That was NPR's Phillip Martin, speaking with Reverend James Forbes Jr. Reverend Forbes is a senior minister at New York's Riverside Church.
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