A Prophet on the Periphery: The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

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Until recently, biographers and historians have focused on Martin Luther King, Jr. as a liberal theologian or social activist, at times losing sight of the black preaching tradition as a formative factor in King’s ministry. As Baldwin observes, books narrating his life and ministry have strongly emphasized his debt to Biblical categories, to Mahatma Gandhi, to American democratic principles, and the liberal Christian theology and ethics, thereby giving the impression that he owed little to his cultural heritage.[1]

This is a particularly regrettable reality while reading King under the rubric of the prophetic imagination because the prophet’s rhetoric is always particularized for the people to whom he preaches.

An appreciation of audience is essential in the African American tradition for three reasons. First, the historical account of African American Christianity is unique within the American religious landscape because of the pre-Enlightenment assumptions of many of the “foot soldiers.”[2] Second, the rhetorical strategy the prophet employs in the Black tradition depends largely on the composition of his congregation.[3]  Finally, an investigation of the prophetic imagination of Dr. King cannot ignore the black tradition as the main ingredient of identity construction because “the traditional marginality and isolation of African Americans from mainstream American society have forced their socio-politico-religio-economic necessities to become relevant pulpit topics in congregations’ quest for life and liberation.”[4]  Therefore, if we ignore these social realities which so clearly weigh upon King’s audience, we inevitably exclude King’s voice by making him more palatable to our own sensitivities. And in doing so, we become part of the very thing he lived and died to criticize.

A prophet’s presence on the periphery of a particular political economy possibly functions as his/her most formative sociological factor. The African American experiences, traditions, and remembrances are, therefore, essential to an understanding of King as an American prophet. Brueggemann’s breakdown of the prophet’s habitat provides the profile for our analysis. He has observed that “the subcommunity that may generate prophecy will participate in the public life of the dominant community; it does so, however, from a certain perspective and with certain intention.”[5] These perspectives and intentions we will engage in the next post.


[1] Lewis V. Baldwin, “Martin Luther King  Jr., The Black Church, and the Black Messianic Vision.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Vol. I.. ed. David J. Garrow. (Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing Inc., 1989), 93.

[2] Mark Noll, God and Race in American Politics.  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 107.

[3] James M. Patterson, Political Leadership, Prophetic Rage, and the Vital Center. (University of Virginia, The Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics Graduate Conference, March 18, 2008), 7.

[4] Mervyn A. Warren, King Came Preaching. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 57.

[5] Brueggemann, xvi.

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Tom Fuerst is Associate Teaching Pastor and Associate Director of Community Life at Christ United Methodist Church of Memphis, TN.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Thomas Fuerst,

    I recently read a few articles by MLK on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute website. In the articles it seems clear that he denied evangelical orthodoxy. I admire MLK’s stance for justice. He is much more intelligent, brave, and committed than I. I fear pointing out a speck in his eye while having a log in my own. I’m in no way challenging your position concerning him, but can he rightly be labeled a prophet if he rejects our core beliefs?

    If you wish to research the articles in the above mentioned website, select “search all texts” in the search option and enter either “virgin birth,” “resurrection,” “Mithraism,” or “divine sonship.”

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