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The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Hardcover – April 4, 2008


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 408 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; First Edition edition (April 4, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674028228
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674028227
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,507,285 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

With the passage of time, those citizens that Americans elevate to the status of secular saints seem to be all things to all people, both conservatives and liberals enjoying claiming Lincoln or Jefferson as their own. It is almost 40 years since Dr. King’s death, and we can see a similar process unfolding as both Republican and Democratic politicians quote or paraphrase his words. Rieder, a professor of sociology, illustrates that King himself consciously facilitated that process. He examines an extensive variety of King’s public speeches and backstage discussions with close associates. It is evident that King chose to tailor his speaking style and occasionally the content of his message to fit his audience. Before southern, black congregations, King was a traditional Baptist preacher. In front of northern and primarily white audiences, his tone was calmer, more nuanced. In unguarded moments, an angrier King is evident as he expresses his frustration with slow racial progress. But the constant in his message was a demand for both compassion and justice that rightfully continues to captivate and inspire his countrymen. --Jay Freeman

Review

[This] important book on King's rhetoric offers a more complex view of King than the sanitized version that is so popular, especially among conservative commentators. (E. J. Dionne Jr. Washington Post 2008-03-21)

As Jonathan Rieder recognizes in The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me, Martin Luther King Jr. embodied the tension between the moral universalism of the black church and its racially specific character. Leading a movement dedicated to the destruction of racial barriers, King extolled the ideal of integration in hauntingly beautiful language. Yet King's own organization was specifically designed to be a black organization, not an interracial one. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference rested upon a base of African American churches. It accepted help from whites but insisted that primary leadership rest firmly in black hands...Focusing on the words he spoke in public and in private, and examining his interactions with the blacks and whites who were closest to him, Rieder shows that attempts to define King in terms of white and black influences distort the man and his message. Whether speaking to blacks or whites, King articulated a consistent moral vision that drew upon the Bible, the tenets of liberal Protestantism, the insights of philosophy, and an idealism that was quintessentially American...By the conclusion of this invaluable [book], Rieder's argument is wholly convincing: The key to King's leadership "lay in the substance of his arguments and the commitments that animated it." (Adam Fairclough Washington Post Book World 2008-04-06)

[A] rich, thoughtful new book...The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me is an extremely learned book, one that Rieder has been working on for almost two decades...Anyone who takes the time to peruse The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me will have no doubt: The real Martin Luther King Jr. more often sounded like Jeremiah Wright than like Barack Obama. (David J. Garrow Los Angeles Times Book Review 2008-04-06)

[The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me] does a service to King's legacy, by lifting the layers of oversimplifying myth and legend to reveal a deeper, more complex man. (Allison Samuels Newsweek 2008-04-05)

Rieder provides fresh insight into the mass appeal of Martin Luther King Jr. to different communities by examining the structure and background influences of the rhetoric of his public sermons and speeches. (Charles Murray Library Journal 2008-04-01)

[An] admirably diligent book...Rieder also skillfully debunks the idea that the "black"-talking King was "real," while the one who invoked Reinhold Niebuhr was a mere performer (like a stand-up comic, for instance), trying to appeal to powerful whites. Both Kings were real. It was hardly unknown for him to mention the likes of agape and Martin Buber to black audiences, and they were thrilled at the display of erudition. (John McWhorter New York Times Book Review 2008-04-27)

Eye-opening...While the various Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of King have documented his political trajectory with admirable precision, they have also shied away from exploring the patterns of King's mind, how his faith was channeled into language that mixed polish and fervor, aggression and empathy, as it confronted the dilemmas of black liberation. Rieder provides the best anatomy of King's verbal imagination yet. (Scott Saul The Nation 2008-05-19)

The question of black identity is maddeningly complicated. In an extraordinary new book, The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jonathan Rieder details the different cultures and subcultures to which Dr. King tailored his message with striking success. He could, in turn, be raucous, smooth, erudite, eloquent, vulgar, and even salacious. This does not mean he was a chameleon or a hypocrite. Rather, says Rieder, “he had an uncommon ability to glide in and out of black, white, and other idioms and identities in an elaborate dance of empathy.” He adds, “The constant for King lay beyond language, beyond performance, beyond race. The core of the man was the power of his faith, his love of humanity, and an irrepressible resolve to free black people, and other people too.” From his actions on the public stage and from our times together, that is how I remember Dr. King. (Richard John Neuhaus First Things 2008-04-04)

Sociologist Rieder has produced a careful reading of Martin Luther King Jr.'s many speaking styles. Pulling together his backstage talk with black comrades, sermons, speeches in the mass rallies of the Civil Rights Movement, writings, and major public addresses, Rieder shows King's tremendous skill in weaving together many different kinds of sources into the right form for each audience. The author argues against the view that King was authentic when speaking in a black idiom to a black audience, but artfully accommodating when using "white material" before a white audience. Instead, Rieder shows that King drew easily on black folk expressions, highbrow theology, the Founding Fathers, gospel music, and, especially, the rich language of the Bible to express himself genuinely before all kinds of audiences. This book is especially valuable in comparing written versus spoken versions of the same sermons and speeches, and versions given before predominantly white and black audiences. Rieder does not paper over King's sex talk, racial jokes, unacknowledged borrowing, and outright plagiarism, but puts all of this in the context of King's real mastery of moving, prophetic speech. (B. Weston Choice 2009-03-01)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Alexander F. Remington on April 12, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The Word of the Lord is Upon Me is perhaps best described as a biography of the rhetoric of the century's greatest orator. Rieder mentions that part of the aim of the book is to reclaim the true Martin Luther King from the shallow appreciations of St. Martin that occur every January. King's medium was speech, and he was less saint than maestro, sampling from cultural traditions across the spectrum, recasting, remaking, and retelling.

Through King's words -- often plagiarized, borrowed, or written by others, then spoken in his inimitable voice and made his own -- Rieder's academic study and close reading becomes compelling. Rieder has a keen ear for language, bringing out the subtle nuances in the maestro's recombined rhetoric in beautiful prose of his own. "Righteous performance" in the book's title captures the extent to which King's inspired prophecy was carefully calibrated; his themes and voices often reflected the audience; and he was always keenly aware of his desired effect.

The one thing missing from the book is the voice of King himself, the instrument that animates the pages. As Rieder points out, absent his voice the words themselves can be uneven, as in King's published work, which was invariably heavily edited for white audiences. King's genius was in speaking to audiences across racial lines, connecting with each within their own tradition, and then analogizing that with the African-American struggle with civil rights. King did this with audiences from Southern Afro-Baptist congregations to Reform Jews, from white liberal Protestants to the AFL-CIO, bringing his audiences into his fold by the power of his charisma.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Creative Energy on October 18, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It's about time a writer went beyond the typical soaring rhetoric of Dr. King. This was an insightful as well as enjoyable read.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Craig D. Dandridge on April 23, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This book is very informative. In this time where sounds bites seems to define who we are, this book takes a deep look into Dr. King's complete "personhood". A must read for those who want to understand Dr. King complete ministry.
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0 of 3 people found the following review helpful By G. Meredith on October 9, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is hard for me to read as it is very dry material. If it were not for the bits of historical info contained herein, I would have put this book down long ago. Actually, I thought about not finishing it a couple times but pressed on anyway. However, this is only my personal opinion. You may find this enjoyable. I guess since everyone is different, read for yourself.
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