Apprenticed to the Word
KING rarely spoke publicly about the Sustainers and Reformers who preceded him or the influential mentors who formed him as a preacher. Perhaps he understood that American culture demands utter originality of its leaders or feared that if he acknowledged his debt to the black tradition, he would lose his credibility with white audiences. When he did reflect on his own rhetorical gifts, he never identified his real teachers, never praised the black Fathers or spoke of Africa, Auburn Avenue, or his Daddy's awesome power, but instead repeated the conventional principles of oratory as if he had merely plowed in the furrows of Cicero and Quintilian. The only on-the-record statement King ever made regarding his own preaching and oratory occurred in Atlanta a week after John Kennedy's assassination. King was sick and bedridden with the flu but nevertheless granted a long interview to a young graduate student in speech named Donald H. Smith. The interview exemplifies King's generosity as well as his reticence: he opened his home to an unstrategic academician but gave him a superficial account of his training that bypassed his apprenticeship in the African-American preaching tradition.
In the course of the interview, which was interrupted several times by the telephone and his baby son Dexter ("Dexter does not have the virtue of restraint"), King acknowledged that the spoken word was essential to the success of the Movement and that the style of any speech may be altered according to the makeup of the audience—maxims common to Aristotle, Quintilian, and any introductory text in public speaking. He also alluded to the venerable three Ps: proving an appeal to the intellect, painting an appeal to the imagination, and persuading by an appeal to the heart.