10 Questions for Gary Selby on Martin Luther King and the Rhetoric of Freedom: The Exodus Narrative in America’s Struggle for Civil Rights (Baylor University Press, 2008)
What inspired you to write Martin Luther King and the Rhetoric of Freedom? What sparked your interest?
Like so many things, my fascination with King grew out of a combination of factors. I grew up a beneficiary of what one person called “white affirmative action”; yet, for as long as I can remember I’ve felt a keen sense of the unfairness of racial division and injustice. Growing up, I felt drawn to Dr. King’s life and oratory and, the more I studied, to his vision of the “beloved community.” On top of all of that, we were faithful churchgoers and I was steeped in the Bible from an early age. So when I started doing research for graduate seminars in rhetoric over twenty years ago, I naturally gravitated toward studying King — and when you start reading those early speeches and sermons, they’re filled with references to the Exodus.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
Of course, there’s a scholarly claim that has to do with the nature of social movements — that social movements aren’t simply phenomena that exist out in the world; rather, they are “states of consciousness.” In other words, a social movement comes into being when a group of people come to see themselves as sharing a common identity, a common story, and a common destination. Applied to the civil rights movement, what was it that helped create that “movement consciousness”? I believe it was the theme of the Exodus that filled their speeches and songs and that eventually they “reenacted” through the protest march.
But I hope that what also comes through is Dr. King’s sensitivity to the tensions of his rhetorical situation. He was determined to inspire and motivate his hearers to take action, but without encouraging violence or even malice toward their opponents. The way that he did that without ever losing sight of his vision took incredible courage, sophistication, and grace.
Anything you had to leave out?
My book really covers the period up to 1963, so there’s a lot of discourse from Dr. King that I don’t deal with in this study.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
Probably the biggest one has to do with rhetoric in general. People speak of rhetoric as if it were something separate from action — you see this when people dismiss it as “mere” rhetoric, as if what we call things and the way we talk about things doesn’t matter. But it does matter. My classic example is the “war on drugs.” It wasn’t a literal war; it was a metaphor, a way of talking about a social issue. But that metaphor had enormous implications for public policy — for where we focused our efforts toward the drug problem, how we pursued law enforcement, and where we spent billions of dollars in tax revenue. Rhetoric matters!
Applied to the civil rights movement, that misconception leads us to account for the success of the movement in such factors as the physical resources of the black church or the changes in political structures in cities where the movement was successful (cities like Montgomery and Birmingham). Of course those factors were important, but something had to motivate the masses of African Americans to believe that change was possible, to the point that they would lay down their lives for the cause. That motivation comes out of the rhetoric to which they were exposed — the sermons, the speeches, the songs, that spoke repeatedly of how God was leading them to the Promised Land.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
As a rhetorical scholar, I hope that my book is welcomed among the members of my own discipline — other rhetorical scholars. I also hope to reach both religious scholars and historians, since my book makes an argument about the power of religious narrative and it also offers causal explanations for why incredibly significant historical events happened the way they did.
But I’m also hoping to speak to the average person who simply wants to know more about Dr. King and the civil rights movement. In the past, my writing’s been described as “accessible” — something that isn’t always the case with scholarly works. I hope that that holds true here.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? give them pleasure? piss them off?
I hope that my readers experience a profound “aha!” in realizing the crucial role that this religious and cultural narrative played in the success of the civil rights movement and that they will be inspired by the way Dr. King used the story so masterfully. But I also hope that people come away with the same sense of awe that I did at the courage of the protestors themselves and, particularly, at the incredible grace that they showed toward their enemies.
What alternate title would you give the book?
I’d have called it “Marching to Canaan” or “Marching to the Promised Land” or something like that. But my publisher told me that in this day of on-line searches, “Martin Luther King” and “Rhetoric” have to go to the left of the colon or the book will get buried.
How do you feel about the cover?
I love it! In a way, the photograph of a civil rights march juxtaposed with the language about freedom and the Exodus captures the whole point of the book. Until the book came out, I wasn’t sure what it would look like. I knew it probably wouldn’t have a picture of Dr. King on the front — they’re typically prohibitively expensive to use. So when I saw the design, I was thrilled.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written?
There’s so much room for more scholarship dealing with rhetoric and racial conflict in American history that it’s hard for me to immediately identify a book that I wish I’d written. Certainly, along the way I’ve had that inspiration for the book I’d like to write only to realize that it’s already been done — and it’s probably a better book than I ever could have produced (for example Kirt Wilson’s The Reconstruction Desegregation Debate: The Politics of Equality and the Rhetoric of Place, 1870-1875. What an amazing period in U.S. history!) But on the other hand, the work I’ve already done has opened me to more projects than I have years left to do them in.
What’s your next book?
Wow — that’s a hard one. It’ll be something that continues the elements that this one does, exploring religious themes within the rhetoric of racial conflict in American history. I’m interested in picking up some of my previous work on Frederick Douglass; but almost no work has been done in my field on Ralph David Abernathy, an incredibly important figure in the movement. A third possibility is a more focused study on the 1963 Birmingham campaign.