From Identification to Rage
ONE Sunday morning in 1958 the novelist James Baldwin visited Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to hear its famous pastor preach. A harsh critic of the Negro church, Baldwin admits that he went to services that day anticipating "those stunning, demagogic flights of the imagination which bring an audience cheering to its feet." Instead, what he found was an incredibly humble man whose "secret," he says, lies "in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt and baffle them."
The most complex element in King's strategy of style was identification, which Kenneth Burke calls the rhetorical "principle of courtship." For the first decade of his career King worked incessantly to align the aims of the Movement with the values of moderate-to-liberal white America. His goal was the merger of black aspirations into the American dream. To do this he had to convince black Americans that his methods represented their best interests, and he had to convince white Americans that his vision was consistent with their heritage and in their best interests as well. Due to the growing influence of television, which allowed a Negro unprecedented access to white audiences ( Meet the Press, The Tonight Show) and his own intellectual background and rhetorical gifts, which granted him unprecedented credibility with white audiences, he carried out his mission of identification before a vast racially mixed audience. Even when he spoke to exclusively black or white audiences, he was in a very real sense addressing the vexingly mixed audience that is America. If that were not complexity enough, he campaigned for identification as a man of dark color in one of the most color-obsessed nations in the world.