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Martin Luther King's Biblical EpicHis Final, Great Speech$

Keith D. Miller

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9781617031083

Published to University Press of Mississippi: March 2014

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781617031083.001.0001

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If I Do Not Stop, What Will Happen to Them?

If I Do Not Stop, What Will Happen to Them?

King’s Rhetoric of the Body

Chapter:
(p.112) Chapter 6 If I Do Not Stop, What Will Happen to Them?
Source:
Martin Luther King's Biblical Epic
Author(s):

Keith D. Miller

Publisher:
University Press of Mississippi
DOI:10.14325/mississippi/9781617031083.003.0007

Abstract and Keywords

While extending the Exodus and Hebrew prophecy in his final speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Martin Luther King Jr. also knits together Jewish and Christian themes by interpreting the Christian Bible. This chapter examines his use of passages that resonate in the Hebrew Bible and in two books of the Christian Bible—Luke and Acts. It looks at King’s use of two passages from Luke to reconstitute the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and to reframe Memphis, and then comments on his interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan and his recollection of the stabbing that almost killed him in 1958. King’s account of this near-fatal stabbing, along with the wounded traveler in the parable and oppressed garbage workers in Memphis, informs and shapes his concluding words about his own possible death. The chapter concludes with a discussion of King’s construction of a biblical narrative that strongly emphasizes the body as a site of spiritual struggle and triumph.

Keywords:   garbage workers, Martin Luther King, Bible, Judaism, Christianity, Memphis, Good Samaritan, death, body

While extending the Exodus and Hebrew prophecy in “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King also interprets the Christian Bible. In doing so, he carefully knits together Jewish and Christian themes. Early in this chapter I explain this process by analyzing his use of passages that resonate in the Hebrew Bible and in two books of the Christian Bible—Luke and Acts. Then I explicate his interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Next I investigate his implicit, but firm argument that Judaism forms the inescapable foundation for Christianity, an argument that radically reconceives a centuries-old tradition of dominant Christian attitudes toward Judaism. I conclude the chapter by examining his construction of a biblical narrative that strongly emphasizes the body as a site of spiritual struggle and triumph.

Consider King’s use of quotations that illustrate the reliance of the Christian Bible on the Hebrew Bible. When King shoves Hebrew prophecy into Memphis, he adds another commission to those from Jeremiah and Amos:

Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones and, whenever injustice is around, he must tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, who said, “When God speaks, who can but prophesy?” Again with Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.”

(p.113) King’s proclamation, “Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor,’” encapsulates a sacred call that appears in (Third) Isaiah:

  • The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
  • Because the Lord has anointed me
  •  To bring good tidings to the afflicted;
  • He has sent me
  •  To bind up the brokenhearted,
  •  To proclaim liberty to the captives
  •   And the opening of the prison
  •   To those who are bound,
  •  To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

 ([Third] Isaiah 61:1–2)

As many of King’s listeners realized, in a key passage in the Christian Bible, Jesus quotes these lines. Luke relates:

And Jesus came to Nazareth … and he went to the synagogue … on the Sabbath day. And He stood up to read; and there was given to Him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written:

  • The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
  • Because He has anointed me
  •  To preach good news to the poor.
  • He has sent me
  •   To proclaim release to the captives
  •    and recovering sight to the blind,
  •   To set at liberty those who are oppressed,
  •   To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
  • … And he began to say to them,
  • This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.

(Luke 4:16–19)

In this passage, Luke presents Jesus seizing a portion of (Third) Isaiah for the purpose of announcing and enacting, for the first time, his role of prophet and Messiah. Obviously, these lines are extremely important to (p.114) anyone who wishes to grasp the message of the Christian Bible. The great significance of this passage ensured that it would become very familiar to Christians.

When King offers this refrain,

Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones.… Somehow the preacher must be an Amos who said:“When God speaks, who can but prophesy?”

and again with Amos,

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor,”

he aligns the commission statements of Jeremiah, Amos, Third Isaiah, and Jesus, thereby strongly tying the three prophets to each other and to Jesus.

King reminds biblically minded listeners that the Jesus of Luke refashions the dynamic lexicon of prophecy that animates (Third) Isaiah, the same lexicon that enlivens Jeremiah and Amos. By choosing a passage from (Third) Isaiah that Luke reconfigures, King notes that, for biblical writers, God’s calling of a prophet does not end prophecy, nor does God’s fulfillment of an oracle exhaust that oracle. Rather, the fulfillment of Third Isaiah’s call to prophecy suggests that, hundreds of years later, the call can be reconfigured and refulfilled by Jesus. As Michael Fishbane explains, the process of reconfiguring and refulfilling earlier texts is a means by which biblical writers establish “a sure link between memory and hope.”1 King’s citation of this biblical double passage highlights what Paul Ricoeur terms the “network of intersignification” that underlies biblical texts and the “interpretive dynamism” that propels them.2

And just as the author of Luke reimagines a segment of (Third) Isaiah, King reimagines the same passage in Luke in order to explain contemporary preachers’ commission to prophesy. King directly cites the project in Luke of refashioning (Third) Isaiah as the basis for King’s own project, which is to rework the dynamic lexicon of prophecy yet again, this time in Memphis. He undertakes this project when he insists that preachers in Memphis must now re-engage the mission of Jeremiah, Amos, Third Isaiah, and Jesus.

For some listeners, King’s emphasis on the similarities of these commission (p.115) announcements summons other scriptural passages that also strongly tie the prophets to Jesus. The author of Luke also wrote Acts. Acts features a speech in which Stephen quotes Amos and criticizes Israelites for rejecting Moses, for rejecting the prophets, and for rejecting Jesus.3 For the author of Acts, accepting Moses and accepting the prophets aligns with accepting Jesus. According to Acts, interpenetrating themes connect the Exodus narrative, the prophetic books, and Jesus.

King’s use of“fire in the bones” and “fire no water could put out” relies on a basic metaphor:

Holiness=Fire.

Variations of this metaphor appear in various biblical books. One instance is the “burning bush”through which God speaks to Moses in Exodus.4Another is the “pillar of fire” that helped lead the Israelites through the wilderness during the Exodus.5 A subset of this biblical metaphor is:

Holiness=FirewithintheHumanBody.

One example of this subset is the “fire in the bones” that impels Jeremiah to speak for God. Another example is the “tongues of fire” that Acts associates with the arrival of the Holy Ghost during the Pentecost.

Of course, the phrase “tongues of fire” also serves as the crucial metaphor for the intense religious experience of the Azusa Street Revival. In explaining his epiphany on Azusa Street, C. H. Mason invokes this image from Acts: “‘I was led by the Spirit … to go to Los Angeles, California, where the great fire of the latter reign of the Holy Ghost had fallen on many.’” He adds, “‘A flame touched my tongue which ran down in me. My language changed and no word could I speak in my own tongue. Oh, I was filled with the glory of the Lord.’”6 By the time of King’s last speech, several hundred thousand Pentecostals throughout the United States had, like Mason, experienced the key Pentecostal phenomenon of “tongues of fire.”

Remarkable is the similarity of these three metaphors:

Fire in the bones (in Jeremiah and King’s speech),

Fire within protestors that no water could put out (in King’s speech),

Tongues of fire (in Acts and Mason’s rhetoric).

Each of the three metaphors is a variant of this metaphor: (p.116)

Holiness=FirewithintheHumanBody.

All three tropes uphold and reinforce the general emphasis that Holiness and Pentecostal churches place on the fusion of holiness and physicality. As one scholar explains, Holiness and Pentecostal Christianity “insists … on the individual human body as the dwelling space of the Spirit of God, the true Temple of the Holy Spirit.”7 For Pentecostals at Mason Temple, King’s direct use of two images of holy fire within the human body would sound reminiscent of Pentecostal preaching and Pentecostal worship. King certainly does not duplicate Pentecostal themes, but parts of his oration rhyme with the Pentecostal emphasis on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the body.

Further, for King’s biblically literate listeners, his use of “fire in the bones” from Jeremiah connects both backwards from Jeremiah’s time to the earlier burning bush in Exodus and forward from Jeremiah to the later “tongues of fire” in Acts.

King elaborates his interpretation of the Christian scripture when, in considerable detail, he recounts another passage in Luke—the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Only Luke depicts Jesus reading his commission from a scroll with the words of (Third) Isaiah; similarly, only Luke features Jesus telling what became his most famous story.8 Does it matter that, among the four gospels, only Luke presents both the passage from (Third) Isaiah and this parable? Yes. As Luke and King indicate, Jesus accepts a mission:

  • The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
  • Because He has anointed me
  •  To preach good news to the poor.
  • He has sent me
  •  To proclaim release to the captives
  •   and recovering sight to the blind,
  •   To set at liberty those who are oppressed.

Luke portrays Jesus fulfilling this mission in various ways, including his decision to narrate the Parable of the Good Samaritan.9 The badly injured—half dead—victim of the parable certainly exemplifies a person who is poor, captive, blind, and/or oppressed.

(p.117) After King quotes (Third) Isaiah/Luke, “Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor,’” King addresses and, if you will, fulfills this commission in his speech in part by summarizing and interpreting the renowned parable. He emphasizes its importance by devoting not five or six sentences to his exegesis, but instead thirty-nine sentences, most of which follow:

One day a man came to Jesus and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base. He asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Now that question could easily have ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from midair and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by the other side; they didn’t stop to help him. Finally, a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “Thou” and to be concerned about his brother.

Now, you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the Priest and the Levite didn’t stop.… But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road.… In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the Priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around.… And so the first question that the Priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”

But the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

That’s the question before you tonight. Not,“If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?” Not,“If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not,“If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is,“If I do (p.118) not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.

Although most of King’s entire analysis here stems directly from George Buttrick and from Protestant commonplaces, King completes his discussion by inserting the garbage carriers of Memphis into the parable—a move that dramatically changes the interpretation provided by his sources. Through this move, King explains the entire parable as a scriptural imperative to support the strikers. King argues that just as, in the parable, the Good Samaritan braved the dangerous Jericho Road to rescue the roadside victim, so should people of good will aid the wounded and bleeding sanitation workers. King constructs this equation:

GoodSamaritanRoadsideVictim=StrikeSupportersStrikingSanitationWorkers.

But, as King explains, the bloodied traveler and the Samaritan are not alone in the parable: two leading religious officials, the priest and Levite, amble straight past the wounded victim, leaving him bleeding and helpless in the ditch.

King clearly invites his audience to ask, If the victim and the Samaritan have their counterparts in Memphis, then what about the other players in the drama? Do the callous and self-absorbed priest and Levite appear in some form in Memphis? Who is blithely strolling past the garbage workers, the roadside victims? King’s audience, of course, realizes that a few minutes earlier he criticized many contemporary clergy in Memphis: “so often preachers aren’t concerned about anything but themselves.” King obviously suggests a parallel between the moderate clergy of Memphis and the selfimportant priest and Levite who ignore the bloodied traveler. King strongly implies that clergy who seek political neutrality in Memphis are contemporary priests and Levites. While pretending to be leaders, he suggests, they refuse to risk the security of their jobs—or even to leave the comforts of their offices—thus failing to help innocent people who are robbed and beaten. Here is his equation:

PriestandLeviteRoadsideVictim=ModerateStrikingSanitationWorkers.

(p.119) Yet another actor appears in the parable—the thief. If the trash collectors are twentieth-century equivalents of the stricken man in the parable, then someone must be beating and robbing them. Who? In King’s appeal, the answer is obvious: the boss of Memphis, who continues to oppress city workers while stubbornly refusing to negotiate. In this argument, the mayor’s intransigence is the reason that the laborers are hurting and need to strike. King implies that Mayor Loeb is a new bandit who springs on hapless sojourners:

RobberRoadsideVictims=MayorLoebSanitationWorkers.

Earlier in the speech King identified Mayor Loeb as Pharaoh and the laborers as Egyptian slaves:

PharaohEgyptianSlaves=MayorLoebSanitationWorkers.

By using the same speech to imply that Mayor Loeb is both the pharaoh in Egypt and the violent thief in the parable, King implicitly asks listeners to combine these equations:

PharaohEgyptianSlaves=MayorLoebStriking SanitationWorkers.=RobberRoadSideVictim

One could easily object that the resemblances don’t work. Loeb, who guides a medium-sized city from a swivel chair alongside his wooden desk, is definitely not a mighty, dictatorial ruler of a large nation who, one supposes, comes outfitted in elaborate finery and reclines on a huge, golden throne. One could also object that, operating in city hall, Mayor Loeb is not precisely a roadside outlaw who engages in assault and armed robbery. One could further object that Mayor Loeb cannot be both Pharaoh and a highway thief because such figures are inherently dissimilar: one is royalty, the other lowlife. But these objections all rely on a literal interpretation of the Bible—an interpretation that King emphatically rejects. Tossing aside any biblical literalism, King presents an intricate logic that holds that—notwithstanding outer appearances—Pharaoh, the robber in the parable, and Mayor Loeb exemplify the same oppressive form of biblical evil.

(p.120) In this argumentative system, if Pharaoh resembles the robber, then there must be a role for Moses. By equating Pharaoh with the robber, King implies that Moses resembles the Good Samaritan:

MosesEgyptianSlaves=Good SamaritanRoadSideVictim.

Because King explicitly claims that

Good SamaritanRoadSideVictim=StrikeSupportersSanitationWorkers.

attentive listeners will infer that, in this argumentative system, supporters of the union resemble both Moses and the Good Samaritan:

MosesEgyptianSlaves=Good SamaritanRoadSideVictim=StrikeSupportersSanitationWorkers

By linking Pharaoh to the robber and Moses to the Good Samaritan, King joins authors of the Christian Bible in reworking what Walter Brueggemann calls the “grammar of the Exodus” from the Hebrew scripture. King does so by creating strong typological links between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible and by creating equally strong typological links between both sets of scripture and the strike in Memphis.

This orator extends this process by explaining that the Good Samaritan achieved greatness because, in King’s words, “Jesus ended up saying this [Samaritan] was the good man; this was the great man because he had the capacity to project the ‘I’ into the ‘Thou’ and to be concerned about his brother.” King thereby adapts the language of twentieth-century Jewish theologian Martin Buber, whom King mentions by name in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Buber’s book I and Thou had endeared itself to religious liberals and had become a widely read classic. Here King uses a Jewish theologian’s conception of I-Thou relationship to help explain the meaning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In doing so, King offers a remarkable assertion of the crucial relation between Judaism and Christianity. In King’s rhetoric, a modern Jewish thinker helps illuminate the message of Jesus.

Earlier in the speech King announced, “Either we go up together or we (p.121) go down together.” Albeit not explicitly biblical, this sentiment reiterates an extremely important theme in the Exodus narrative and the prophetic texts. Through this statement King expresses his concern for the entire African American people and the entire American people—a theme buttressed by Exodus and by the texts of Hebrew prophecy that King cites.

Through his use of Buber and his affirmations about Moses, Hebrew prophets, and Jesus, King strongly counters two popular Christian interpretations of the Bible—developmentalism and supersessionism. As James Barr (in 1966) and Brevard Childs (in 1979) observed, many Protestants scarcely noticed the Hebrew Bible at all. For many Christians, the doctrines of developmentalism and supersessionism dictated this inattention. Developmentalists (including Harry Emerson Fosdick) propose that the Bible presents a “progressive revelation” about God.10 According to this view, biblical texts initially present a crude, primitive portrait of a wrathful, destructive God before eventually stumbling toward a more admirable portrait of a loving and nurturing God. Developmentalists insist that Christ emerges as the apex of this long, progressive revelation. For their part, Christian supersessionists have, for centuries, claimed that the revelation of Christ decidedly surpasses literally everything in the Hebrew Bible. For supersessionists, Moses and the prophets mainly serve as a hazy backdrop to the birth of Jesus. Of the entire body of Hebrew scripture, supersessionists treasure the small number of lines that, they believe, directly forecast the eventual arrival of Christ. In the view of developmentalists and supersessionists alike, the sublimity of Christ greatly eclipses everyone and everything that preceded him, and that eclipse is the whole point of Christianity.

The doctrine of supersessionism undergirded the overriding theme of personal sin and personal salvation that issued from many American pulpits before, during, and after King’s lifetime. Many white evangelicals (such as Billy Graham) and some African American ministers (including some Baptists and Pentecostals) continually emphasized this theme. Many of them still do.

In “I Have a Dream,” “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” and elsewhere, King repudiates developmentalism and supersessionism. He implicitly, but clearly, maintains that one does not achieve redemption by simply bypassing Judaism on route to accepting Christ as Savior. Instead of contending that Jesus represents a radical break in the history of Judaism, King explains Jesus as a continuation, extension, and fulfillment of the revelation that preceded him. King implicitly, but strongly, argues that one approaches Jesus by taking (p.122) three steps in order. First, one approaches and grasps Egyptian slavery, Moses, the Exodus, and the Sinai Covenant. Second, one approaches and grasps prophetic testimony, which extends, elaborates, and adjusts the Exodus tradition. Third, one can then encounter Jesus, who realizes the legacy of Moses and prophecy. Insisting on the significance of Moses and the Israelite seers helps King assert that Christianity offers more than a heavenly afterlife of “long white robes over yonder” and “streets flowing with milk and honey.” Affirming the crucial role of Hebrew scripture—especially the Exodus narrative and prophecy—enables King to counter developmentalism and supersessionism and the related emphasis on individual salvation. Such an emphasis, King strongly implies, may diminish or even preclude the possibility of enacting social justice.

Touting the function of the Christian Bible as an interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, King clearly explains that both Testaments present a dynamic of exploitation and redemption that are both individual and social. And, just as King explicates the Exodus as a drama now re-emerging in Memphis, he treats the prophets’ demand for justice for the poor as a demand that resurfaces when Jesus cites lines from (Third) Isaiah. King thereby declares that the need to prophesy for justice did not change in the centuries that separate Moses, Amos, Jeremiah, and Third Isaiah from each other and from Jesus. King further contends that the need to prophesy for justice has not changed in the almost two thousand years that separate the lifetime of Jesus from the present. For King and his listeners, Hebrew prophecy—specifically, a passage in (Third) Isaiah—re-emerges centuries later in Christian scripture and again in Memphis.

For King, explicating the Parable of the Good Samaritan serves other important purposes as well. As King announces, the parable begins when a lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” As King indicates, this lawyer’s question is philosophical, and it obviously calls for a philosophical answer, specifically for a formal definition of “neighbor.” Offering such definitions was a common practice in ancient Greco-Roman rhetoric and, I assume, in ancient rabbinic circles as well. Yet, King notes, Jesus did not respond with a definition or with any other type of philosophical answer. Jesus obviously ducked the lawyer’s philosophical inquiry, preferring to tell a story instead. Why? On its face, the lawyer’s question sounds perfectly reasonable. Don’t many people, like the lawyer, wonder exactly how far their ethical obligations extend? Gigantic numbers of people populate the earth, and many of (p.123) them are hurt and in need. How many of them can I possibly help? How many of them can you possibly help? How many of them can any one of us possibly help? “Who is my neighbor?” sounds like a fair question. But King claims that, far from posing a fair query, the lawyer “wanted to trick Jesus” and “throw him off base.” King adds, “Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate.” Yes, it certainly could have. Such a debate, King expressly indicates, is exactly what Jesus deliberately skirted. But, again, why?

King implies a larger point: Jesus did not talk like a formal philosopher, either in responding to the lawyer’s question or on other occasions. King implies that Jesus was not a formal theologian and never attempted to create a systematic philosophy or a systematic theology. King emphasizes that Jesus instead narrated stories that could jar listeners’ sensibilities and spur them toward spiritual awareness and compassionate behavior. Many scholars have attempted to portray King as a theologian, a theologian whose ideas, they claim, stemmed from the formal theology that he studied in graduate school.11 But, significantly, throughout his public career, King never once offered formal, abstract theology. Not in any speech. Not in any essay. He never came close. Here, in his last speech, he explains that Jesus explicitly rejected a clear, open invitation to proffer abstract philosophy or theology. Instead, King indicates, Jesus delivered his theology via parable, via narrative. King notes that Jesus supplied a type of narrative theology, if you will, and that he—King—uses “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” in an effort to extend biblical narrative and prophecy into the present. King does assert biblical concepts in his final speech. But he plainly refuses to present them simply as abstract propositions. Instead, he carefully situates them within the biblical narrative and prophecy that he locates in Memphis. He implicitly justifies his extension of biblical narrative and prophecy by emphasizing that Jesus directly rejected an opportunity to speak philosophically and instead chose to narrate.

Recounting the Parable of the Good Samaritan enables King to articulate an interpretation of the Bible that is not only conceptual, but also profoundly physical. King’s biblical interpretation is decidedly an interpretation of embodiment. Of course, all Christians believe that Jesus was God incarnate, God become flesh, God entering human form. The gospels indicate that Jesus began his life in a barn, changed water into wine, healed the sick, created the miracle of the loaves and fishes, rode a donkey into (p.124) Jerusalem, and died a tortuous death while nailed to a cross. In King’s discussion, the Parable of the Good Samaritan provides the memorable image of a victimized body—a bloody pulp tossed along the roadway.

Significantly, King immediately follows his account of the parable with one of the most memorable passages in his entire oratory—his narration of a frightening experience in 1958:

Several years ago I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up.…

The next minute I felt something beating on my chest.… I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital.… And that blade had gone through and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured you’re drowned in your own blood; that’s the end of you.

It came out in the New York Times the next morning that, if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation … to move around in the wheelchair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world kind letters came in.… I had received one from the President and the Vice President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl.…

And I looked at that letter and I’ll never forget it. It said simply,“Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.… While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering. And I read that, if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

And I want to say tonight … that I, too, am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because, if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that, as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream. And taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy dug deep by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in interstate travel. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here (p.125) in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And, whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been here in 1963 when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year to try to tell America about a dream that I had had. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great movement there. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.12

In King’s recounting of the parable, a violent attacker bloodies an innocent man who, after lingering close to death, eventually recovers from his injury. In King’s recounting of his stabbing in Harlem, a violent attacker bloodies an innocent man (King) who, after lingering close to death, eventually recovers from his injury. King does not equate himself with the mugged traveler in the parable. But King’s decision to juxtapose these roughly similar images of violence and victimage strengthens his system of biblical interpretation as an ongoing drama of embodiment.

King presents both stories—the parable and the Harlem stabbing—as spiritual narratives of the body. The parable directly contrasts the Priest and the Levite, who are spiritually empty, to the magnificently compassionate Samaritan. In his narration of the Harlem stabbing and its aftermath, King implies that God intervened, touched King, and saved his life. This intervention, King implies, allowed him to participate in spiritual milestones of the African American struggle. He enumerates and describes each of them: Lunch-Counter Sit-Ins, Freedom Rides, Albany movement, Birmingham crusade, March on Washington, Selma-to-Montgomery March, and Memphis strike. Each of these episodes, he suggests, serves as a pivotal freedom moment that recapitulates the meaning that he had celebrated earlier in his speech, namely, the meaning of the Exodus, the Reformation, and the Emancipation Proclamation. He strongly implies that, in each civil rights campaign that he enumerates—from Exodus to Memphis—God works through history to overcome evil.

Note that King explains many of these triumphs with images that blend the body with abstract ideals. As students “started sitting-in at lunch counters” he notes,“they were really standing up for what is best in the American (p.126) dream.” Here he equates opposites—sitting with standing. In his word play, the physical act of sitting at lunch counters embodies the abstraction of standing for the principle of racial equality. The Freedom Riders, he declares, “decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in interstate travel.” Here the dissidents’ physical ride on a bus achieved the abstract ideal of freedom. Blacks in Albany, Georgia, he continues, “decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.” Accustomed to bending their backs all day while picking cotton, sharecroppers in rural Georgia could both literally and figuratively straighten their backs as an act of defiance against white supremacy.

These metaphors of the body—sitting down, standing up, riding a bus, bending backs, and straightening backs—add to a whole panoply of bodily tropes that King assembles in the spiritual narrative that he builds throughout the speech. He begins by evoking a massive migration: “the magnificent trek” of the Israelites walking “across the Red Sea, through the wilderness, on toward the Promised Land.” Next he explains, “We aren’t going to let any mace stop us.” Then he describes the attack dogs and water cannons that police leveled at demonstrators’ bodies in Birmingham before jamming those bodies into paddy wagons:

And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them, and we’d go on before the water hoses… .And we’d just go on singing, “Over my head, I see freedom in the air.” And then we would be thrown into paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines.… And we would just go on in the paddy wagons singing “We Shall Overcome.”And every now and then we’d get in jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows, being moved by our prayers and being moved by our words and our songs.

Then he invokes the fire in Jeremiah’s bones. He also criticizes preachers for overemphasizing “long white robes over yonder” and “streets flowing with milk and honey,” explaining that they also need to clothe bodies in Memphis with “suits and dresses and shoes” and noting the physical need for “three square meals a day.” He denies the need for disaffected people to retaliate by injuring the bodies of police:“We don’t need any bricks and bottles. We don’t need any Molotov cocktails.” He also instructs listeners “not to buy”—or drink—Coca-Cola or Sealtest Milk and “not to buy”—or (p.127) chew—Wonder Bread or Hart’s Bread. Finally, he implores his audience to abandon their offices and school desks as they enact a general strike that would completely shut down Memphis.

All these bodily images precede King’s rendering of the bloody victim in the Parable of the Good Samaritan and his account of his nearly fatal knifing in Harlem. As if this were not enough, King then mentions his pilot’s fear that the plane of that same morning would be blown up simply because King was a passenger. As if even this were not enough, he concludes by implying unmistakably his expectation that he will soon be killed, thus “fulfilling” the goal of the Harlem assailant ten years earlier.

In the very extensive narrative of the body that King generates throughout this address, the body is thoroughly spiritual and the spiritual thoroughly embodied. The embodiment of spirituality and holiness is not limited to the incarnation of Jesus. Rather, in King’s biblical hermeneutic, every movement toward freedom in every human body is thoroughly spiritual.

King calls his listeners not to spend their lives either creating or contemplating abstract philosophical and theological propositions, but rather to exemplify and embody loving, Christian relationships. For him, the problem Jews and Christians face is not to reach theologians’ usual goal of producing a rigorously consistent and well-nuanced set of abstract theological propositions. Instead, for King, the problem is to spur people to manifest religious concern in concrete ways every day, to care for every victimized traveler, even at the risk of death.

King explains that Jesus spurned the opportunity to speak in philosophical and theological abstractions in favor of offering a narrative of a body bloodied then rescued.

Explaining this decision enables King to support his hermeneutic of the Bible as a narrative of the body and spirit, a narrative that encompasses the story in Luke of the beating and recuperation of the roadside victim and his account of his own stabbing and recuperation in Harlem. By spiritualizing physicality, King’s final oration provides a sermonic alternative to the systematic and abstract philosophy and theology that he studied in graduate school. These works of philosophy and theology presented few reflections on the human body. By contrast, in passage after passage after passage, King’s last speech very strongly emphasizes the body. King intensifies this message by delivering it at the national headquarters of a denomination that lionizes the image of “tongues of fire,” an image of sacredness within (p.128) the body. And King cites Jesus as his authority for using narrative to spiritualize the body. For King and his listeners, the authority of Jesus, clearly articulated in the Christian Bible, carries infinitely more weight than the authority of any and all theologians. And the genre that Jesus uses in his parables is narrative—a genre that King imaginatively extends in “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

Notes:

(1) . Fishbane, 412.

(2) . Ricoeur, 161.

(3) . Acts 6:8–7:60.

(4) . Exodus 3:1–6.

(5) . Exodus 13:21.

(6) . Qtd. in Mason, 26, 30.

(7) . Powers, 788; see also C. Sanders, 64.

(8) . Luke is also the only gospel to record King’s three other favorite parables—the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the Parable of Dives and Lazarus, and the Parable of the Rich Fool.

(9) . Luke 10:25–37. For the entire parable, see Appendix B.

(10) . See Fosdick, Modern Use and Guide.

(11) . See, for example, Smith and Zepp; Ansbro; Burrow; and Wills. This view also influences numerous biographies of King.

(12) . King provides another account of this experience in “Ultimate Doom.”