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

By Richard Lischer | Go to book overview

7
The Masks of Character

IN a 1961 article in the New York Times Magazine, Ved Mehta observed that Gandhi and Martin Luther King shared a certain dramatistic genius. Both directed demonstrations as if they were theatrical performances, and both would therefore be remembered as "imaginative artists who knew how to use world politics as their stage." Several years later, David Halberstam described the Civil Rights Movement as "a great televised morality play, white hats and black hats; lift up the black and there would be the white face of Bull Connor; lift up the white hat and there would be the solemn black face of Martin King." Mehta's and Halberstam's comments—like those of historian Lerone Bennett, who insisted King's greatest gift was his "instinct for symbolic action"—are a reminder that Martin Luther King was, in the fullest and most positive sense of the word, an actor. He perfected his craft in the black church, where he learned how to assume the appropriate role and to perform according to the expectations of his public.

Implicit in King's strategies of style were a few personae by which he communicated his purposes for America. These roles he accepted and played with absolute fidelity. When speaking prophetically, for example, no unseemly aside, unmeant gesture, or hint of backstage behavior ever detracted from his role or diminished the high ground he had chosen for himself. Like a Greek actor, he moved across the stage speaking his lines with a passion appropriate to his mask. He never broke character. What sociologist Erving Goffman calls the "front," which is a performer's setting, appearance, and manner, remained in King utterly consistent.

The most important dimension of oratory, said Aristotle in his Rhetoric, is the character of the orator, by which he meant not only the speaker's

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