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Martin Luther King and the Rhetoric of Freedom

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Martin Luther King and the Rhetoric of Freedom: The Exodus Narrative in America’s Struggle for Civil Rights


In Martin Luther King and the Rhetoric of Freedom: The Exodus Narrative in America’s Struggle for Civil Rights, author Gary S. Selby embarks upon a detailed analysis of select sermons presented by civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to demonstrate how King (and other civil rights leaders) evoked the “Exodus” narrative to create a sense among the downtrodden and vulnerable African American population, that they were reliving the biblical Exodus in their own day.

In advancing his thesis, Selby contends that the ultimate development and success of the American Civil Rights Movement can be largely attributed to King’s ability to draw upon the tradition of constructing a perspective or framework of reference, from which African American listeners could see themselves, their history, and their present circumstances.

Although Shelby’s offering provided useful analysis of sermons presented by Martin Luther King, Jr., his oversimplification of the King rhetoric, and the process through which he ultimately emerged as a historic figure in a historic movement, inevitably serves to leave a glaring “black hole.” The author’s frequent use of the word “exploit” when referring to King’s words and actions, proves to be the source of contentious consideration.

Selby’s assertion that King “convinced “blacks that they were reenacting the biblical Exodus story, is quite a stretch. Although some African Americans may have related to some aspects of the narrative, it is preposterous to suggest that they functioned during that era, believing that they were reliving the bible.

At times, he appears to paint a portrait of King as some type of master manipulator, attempting to lead the mindless masses into the abyss, utilizing an effective oratory strategy. He appears to attribute King's success to the development of an effective strategy to persuade African Americans. Likewise, the author seems to provide a one dimensional view of the civil rights movement when placing it within the context of the Exodus narrative. In effect, Selby examined a complicated, multi-faceted movement, and attempted to present it solely in terms of black and white.

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