The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America

By Richard Lischer | Go to book overview
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5
The Strategies of Style

IT had been a long day. The pastor of Atlanta's West Hunter Street Baptist Church, the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, mopped his brow, did a half-spin in his swivel chair while gazing at the ceiling, and began to reminisce about his old friend's style. As he did so, he slipped into a soft falsetto. "He was gifted, blessed by God. I would often hear him preaching or saying, 'We're tired.'" Abernathy tremulously extends the word to three syllables, "ta-ah-yerd," and, now getting into the spirit of it, continues in whispered mimicry of King.

"We're tired. We are ta-ah-yerd. We're tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life's July and left standin' in the piercing chill of an alpine Novem-bah. We are tired." And often someone would say, "What is that boy saying?" And another one would reply, "I don't know what he is saying, but I sure like what he said. I like the way he's saying it." That's right.


I

According to the old maxim, style is the man, but in King's case style did not mirror a mysterious and inaccessible "inner man," or what King would have called his "personality." Rather, it reflected a strategy for the public presentation of a message, which in turn was related to a larger strategy of social change. He did not preach and speak the way he did because "that is the sort of person he was," but because he had a mission no less calculated or comprehensive than Demosthenes' appeal to Athens or Lincoln's to America.

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