Civil Rights in Columbia

In gospel songs, clues to the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.

When Jonathan Rieder was growing up in Philadelphia during the 1950s, infatuated with rockabilly and rhythm and blues, he sometimes rose early enough to inadvertently tune in to the Sunday morning gospel show on WHAT. Those worship songs sounded different from his favorites, which aimed more at the hips than the spirit. For the Rieder family, fervently unobservant even in its own Jewish faith, Christianity stood at an alien distance.

Yet Rieder, now 65, heard something in those long-ago gospel songs, something that introduced him to the culture of the black church and connected lyrics about divine deliverance to the civil rights issues that compelled him as a teenager to join the NAACP. He heard, as it turned out, the future direction of his academic career.

As America nears the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech in August, Rieder has become one of the most astute scholars of King as a preacher. In two consecutive books developed over nearly 20 years of research, Rieder has immersed himself in the subject of King as a pulpit minister who shaped his theology in sermons delivered to black congregations.

The public King, Rieder argues, cannot be understood without understanding the preacher’s talking black talk to black folk. Rieder’s new book, “Gospel of Freedom,” traces the evolution of both the “I Have A Dream” speech and the “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” King’s most renowned written work, through years of his obscure sermons.

“In truth, the ‘Letter’ was less formal rhetoric or a philosophical treatise than a transcribed form of oral culture,” Rieder writes. “King’s brilliance was always as a master of the spoken word; that is why listening to him is so important. Moreover, the ‘Letter’ was a mlange of riffs, samples, stories, gambits, and allusions, many of which came from his addresses to black people.”

Perhaps the ultimate confirmation that Rieder, the white Jew, got black Christianity right came last month from the Rev. James A. Forbes Jr., one of the leading black ministers of King’s generation.

“This man knows the story of King intimately,” Forbes told an audience at Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem. “In this book, unlike many that speak primarily of a King that was a civil rights leader, he plumbs the depth of the spirituality out of which that leadership came.”

Rieder’s book stakes very specific turf in the corpus of King scholarship with its relentless focus on King the preacher. By doing so, as Forbes pointed out in his comments, Rieder is restoring the overtly religious element to King and the freedom movement. While African-Americans readily grasp the link, many white liberals diminish or ignore it out of discomfort with religion being granted a role - even a positive one - in political discourse.

“The image of liberal secular King misses the essential role of prophetic Christianity,” Rieder, a professor of sociology at Barnard College in New York, said in a recent interview. “Jesus wasn’t just an interesting historical figure to King. He saw Jesus as a continuation of the prophets. He has a powerful association with Jesus.”

Rieder’s appreciation of King as a religious figure came by an indirect route. He made his name as a scholar and a public intellectual with the 1985 book “Canarsie,” which explored the backlash against civil rights liberalism among Jewish and Italian residents of the Brooklyn neighborhood. Writing for The New Republic in the early 1990s, he covered several of New York’s most bitter and violent racial clashes, including the Crown Heights riot in which a black assailant killed a Hasidic man. In interviewing aggrieved white people, Rieder said, he came to realize that writing about race first required listening about race. In particular, it meant listening to what people said about racial issues among themselves, unafraid of appearing impolitic.

He put some of those instincts to use while editing a short-lived magazine about black-Jewish relations, “CommonQuest.” (Full disclosure: I wrote a few articles for the publication.) While in that role, he began to listen to the taped sermons of some New York ministers. Visits to black churches ensued. So did enough fascination with the subject of black preaching for him to commence the formal research for his 2008 book, “The Word of the Lord is Upon Me,” his first consideration of King the sermonizer.

While “Gospel of Freedom” ostensibly discusses the public letter that King wrote in response to criticism of him by moderate white clergymen in Alabama, the book relies greatly on the recordings of about 50 sermons that King delivered during worship services or mass meetings both before and after being jailed in Birmingham.

Addressing fellow blacks in suffering rather than whites needing to be convinced of his reasonable nature, King spoke with both righteous anger and pastoral tenderness. His sermons to black congregations included some of the later catchphrases of the “I Have A Dream” speech - “Free at last,” “Let freedom ring.”

“We forget this aspect of King,” Rieder said. “In the workaday sermons, you hear King answering the existential questions. ‘Have you been disappointed in love? Do you fear death?’ King would often merge ‘Is your heart broken?’ with the slow pace of civil rights. He had to convince black people there is a balm in Gilead, and not just in the next world. He had the resource of a living creator who’s interested in your freedom in this world.”

Rieder has already begun work on his next book, one that returns to his childhood love of crossover music. All his research into black Christianity, he said, has not made him any more religious in his personal life. Yet, in doing that work, Rieder has followed one of the most repeated admonitions in the New Testament: “He who has ears, let him hear.”