A Prophetic Legacy Awaits Fulfillment: As Nation Celebrates His Holiday, King's Commitment to Nonviolence Still Confronts Us

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When President Barack Obama stands on the west front of the U.S. Capitol to deliver his inaugural address Jan. 20, another voice, silenced 40 years ago on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn., will resonate with profound historical significance in a moment that even 18 months ago was still unimaginable.

The slow, rolling baritone of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will echo in the first official message of the first African-American president to a nation probing its way into the future.

Though President-elect Obama was only 6 years old when King was assassinated in 1968, what seems sure is that his presidency could not have happened without the hard-won victories of the civil rights movement and the rhetorical power that flowed from pulpit to podium, from religion to politics through the life and death of King.

What seems less assured is whether King's goal of full racial and economic equality and his radical commitment to nonviolence will also find substance in the legislative programs and foreign Policies of the Obama administration. As King biographer Taylor Branch reminded an audience at the National Cathedral in Washington on the 40th anniversary of King's last sermon there before his death in Memphis, "We have distorted our whole political culture in order to avoid King." Branch shares the view of many that by glorifying King the orator, known by many only for his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, we have muffled King the prophet, who identified racism, militarism and poverty as the underlying and ongoing institutionalized conspiracy against freedom and equality in America.

In assessing King's influence today, it is important to recall that during his life he never held political office or exercised power beyond moral persuasion. King was first and foremost a preacher. From his early faith formation in the black Baptist church and his education in New England, to his role as a high-profile leader in the civil rights movement, King never strayed far from the pulpit. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., and later Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta were where he renewed his vocation. His phenomenal success in other, larger preaching venues, on the road across the South and before audiences in the North, served as an evolving public dialogue about the biblical and legal basis for voting rights and economic fairness, and for his opposition to the war in Vietnam.

A review of King's many recorded speeches and sermons reveals a man imbued with the scriptures. King's powerful voice and cadenced delivery brought to life many familiar biblical passages and lines from hymns: "Justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream." "Every valley will be exalted, and every hill and mountain will be made low." "There is a balm in Gilead, to make the body whole; there is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul." "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

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Jonathan Rieder, in his recent book The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2008), explores King's identity and accomplishments as both preacher and social activist. …