I began researching this book after one of my students informed me that the sermons she had read by Dr. King for a class assignment were "pretty dry," by which she meant boring. Although not an expert on King or black preaching, I had lived through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and therefore I remembered what King's voice had meant to the cause of social justice, and I knew that his sermons and speeches as he delivered them were not "dry." Everyone seems to know what I knew, or remembered, then, and many have given testimony to the beauty and power of the spoken word on King's lips. But few have tried to give a rational account of King's prowess as a speaker and preacher of the gospel.
It is now possible to attempt such a task because the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change has made the audiotapes and transcripts of King's sermons available to scholars. These, along with materials I have gathered from churches and archives around the country, have provided the basis for a reliable portrait of King the preacher and orator. Perhaps a clearer picture will emerge when the King estate grants further access to his earliest and as yet untranscribed sermons and speeches.
In my account of the preacher King I have followed the audiotapes and transcripts of the sermons, allowing the tapes to "correct" mistakes in transcription. Many of the transcripts lack tapes; from these I have corrected only the typist's most obvious errors. For reasons of concision, I have occasionally paraphrased the transcripts. The essence of King's voice, however, is nowhere obscured.
The style of some parts of the sermons and speeches suggests that they exercised a poetic or musical effect on their audience. Where repetition, alliteration, and other rhetorical clues point to this effect, I have transcribed the audiotapes in poetic form. Where a transcript of the sermon already exists, I have sometimes recast portions of it as poetry.