The Biblical Exodus in the Rhetoric of Martin Luther King

Ramon Tuason
As one of the most charismatic orators and leaders of the twentieth century, Martin Luther King led the civil rights movement to success, bringing an end to racial segregation in the United States. Often making references to some of the greatest leaders in American history, King motivated his listeners to fight against racial injustice and seek the freedom that their nation had promised them. To help his message better resonate with his followers, King also analogized their struggle for racial equality to the biblical story, Exodus. In this tale, the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians, but through the leadership of Moses and the guidance of God, they ultimately gained freedom from their captors. Using the story of Exodus, King brought unity to the civil rights movement, gave his followers the confidence to continue fighting against racial injustice, and helped them understand the prolonged struggles they were to endure and the importance of non-violence in their campaign for freedom.

One of the ways in which Martin Luther King made the civil rights movement successful was by recalling the fundamental values of America’s founding. He often reminded his listeners about the goals that the founding fathers had in mind when they wrote the Declaration of Independence, and how Abraham Lincoln aided the realization of these goals by signing the Emancipation Proclamation. In his speech, “I Have a Dream,” King states that when the founding fathers “wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’” Here, King asserts that America’s foundational values impact every one of the nation’s citizens, and that race or ethnicity can never prevent an American from exercising the freedom guaranteed by the constitution. King reminded the victims of racial prejudice about their civil rights, inspiring them to fight against the injustice that they faced in their daily lives.

“I Have a Dream”
Washington D.C.; August 28, 1963
Giving homage to Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address, King delivered a masterpiece of rhetoric that enlivened over 250,000 civil rights supporters by the Lincoln Memorial.
Photo Credit: http://www.maryvanbalen.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/MLKJR-I-have-a-dream-speech.jpg.png

Moreover, in his speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King proclaims, “Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.” Here, King inspires his followers by emphasizing that America’s founding principles justify their claim to the rights associated with U.S. citizenship as well as their struggle for access to the public sphere. As a prejudiced society had withheld or damaged their rights through segregation and discouraged their claims to equal treatment before the law, King wants them to remember that the nation’s forefathers would have wanted them to fight for their civil liberties. In his book, King’s Dream, Eric J. Sundquist supports the notion that King’s pursuit of freedom brought America closer to being the ideal nation that the founding fathers had envisioned. He discusses the foundational values of justice and equality that they wanted the nation to uphold for all its citizens. He states, “Enlisting his audience in a crusade sanctioned by the Declaration of Independence . . .  King in no way rejected America’s foundational values. Rather, he purified and consolidated those values by insisting that only when the revolutionary rights they guaranteed were shared by Americans of all colors, creeds, and nationalities would they truly be America’s foundational values” (10). Thus, part of King’s success lay in his ability to tie the civil rights movement with the fundamental principles of being an American.

While King called his followers to exercise their natural rights as American citizens, he also portrayed their struggle for equality as a modern-day Exodus, using the biblical tale to give the civil rights movement a structure or narrative to follow. In his speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King discusses time periods in history that he would have liked to personally see. He says, “I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land.” Here, as King declares that he would have liked to see the Israelites’ arduous escape from Egypt, he reminds his followers that the Israelites suffered before gaining their freedom from the pharaoh, just like how his own listeners were suffering. King made this point because, as he did not want his followers to feel discouraged in their efforts, he wanted to help them understand that difficult trials were only part of their quest for justice. The Exodus narrative helped King’s supporters comprehend the past, present, and future of their movement; it led them to understand that, if they fought against the discriminatory society of the past and present, God would give them a blessed future just like with the Israelites. In his book, Martin Luther King and the Rhetoric of Freedom, Gary S. Selby discusses how Exodus helped the movement’s supporters see beyond their struggles. Selby writes, “The narrative, applied to their movement, provided a mechanism through which participants could attribute causality to the events that were unfolding around them, a function most clear in King’s use of the wilderness to explain difficulties and disappointments” (168-69). Thus, as King referred to “dark dungeons” and “the wilderness” in his speeches, he wanted to reassure his listeners that they would find justice and equality if they persevered through all their hardships, just as the Israelites did.

“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Memphis, Tennessee; April 3, 1968 Making his final speech before his assassination on the next day, King primarily addressed the Memphis Sanitation Strike. Photo Credit: http://www.juvenile-in-justice.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/MLK-Speech.jpg

“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”
Memphis, Tennessee; April 3, 1968
Making his final speech before his assassination on the next day, King primarily addressed the Memphis Sanitation Strike.
Photo Credit: http://www.juvenile-in-justice.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/MLK-Speech.jpg

As King uses the story of Exodus to give his followers a narrative to follow, he also uses it to bring unity to the movement. In “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King compares the Egyptian pharaoh of the biblical tale with a prejudiced American society. He uses the story of the Israelite Exodus to emphasize the importance of cooperation, inspiring the black community to work together to strive for racial equality.  He states, “Whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. . . . He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.” Thus, as King analogizes Exodus to the civil rights movement, he reminds his followers that dispersed efforts and actions would only hinder their campaign, and that only by standing together could they create real social change. In his book, Selby discusses how Exodus gave the movement a relatable narrative about an oppressed people that would eventually be liberated. As the Israelites had suffered great hardships but ultimately found freedom, the movement’s supporters found hope as King led them to identify their struggle with the Israelites’. Selby states, “This history of self-identification provided a source of social knowledge that King could exploit to evoke the kind of collective identity that theorists have insisted is essential for a social movement to exist, as well as a basis for his appeals to unity in the black community” (43).  Thus, King’s comparison between the black community and the enslaved Israelites strengthened the “collective identity” that propelled the civil rights movement forward. As King spoke of a struggling people with whom all of his followers could empathize, civil rights supporters felt inspired by the Israelites’ successful endeavors. And as the analogy connected King’s individual followers and shaped their efforts and actions into a coherent symbolic framework, their solidarity allowed them to make a significant impact on the country’s prejudiced social structure at the time.

While King emphasized the importance of unity by drawing parallels between the struggles of the Israelites and the black community, he also relied on the theological aspect of Exodus to fortify the civil rights movement. Religious faith promoted the cooperation between King’s supporters as they believed that, just as God had brought the unified Israelites out of slavery, he would also bring racial equality to America if they fought for it as one. Selby points out that, “By symbolically framing their experiences within a deeply held religious myth—one that had been traditionally used to create expectations for social change—he could offer a theological justification for engaging in collective action” (43). Thus, as King’s comparison between the Exodus and the fight against racial injustice in America served as a unifying constant across different moments in time, locations, and protest efforts, it motivated his followers to band together towards one common goal rather than struggle as individuals. They believed that, as their fight was sanctioned by the founding fathers, it was also desired by God.

An artist’s rendering of the Israelite Exodus. While archaeologists assert that the biblical tale is mythological, it has nevertheless served as effective inspiration for social change. Here, the Israelites undertake an arduous journey to find the promised land of God.
Photo Credit: http://returnofthespacegods.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/13.jpg

As King appealed to the authority of God to motivate his followers to cooperate in their campaign, he also used the story of Exodus to make his followers confident that their collective effort would ultimately lead to success. Repeatedly emphasizing the black community’s identity as “the children of God,” King assured his followers that, as God was on their side, America was destined to embrace racial equality. In “I Have a Dream,” King states, “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” Later on, he also proclaims, “[One day,] all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: ‘My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.’” And at the end of the speech, King mentions “the children of God” yet again when he exclaims, “When we allow freedom to ring . . . we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual.” Thus, in this speech, King’s repetition of the term “children of God” reassures his followers that God would one day bring freedom to their land. As a father with genuine concern for his sons and daughters, God would bring justice to America and guarantee equality for all of its citizens. Meanwhile, the idea of God’s children united all Americans, of every origin and descent, into one family. Thus, as King declared his followers to be “children of God,” he encouraged them to believe that, together, they had the power to instigate an historic social change in their nation.

Moreover, King specifically uses the term “children” to reinforce the theological parallels he established between the Israelite Exodus and the civil rights movement. In Exodus 6:5-6, God speaks to Moses and promises that he will deliver the Israelites from oppression. God states in these verses, “And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered my covenant. Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm, and with great judgments.” Thus, as King often reminds his followers that they were God’s children, he asserts that God always looks after them as his chosen people. Urging them to take action against racial inequality, King wants all his followers to feel confident that God helps bring their efforts to fruition. Fully aware of their suffering, God gives them a mandate as well; as he blesses and justifies the struggle, he guarantees justice for the oppressed, and judgment and punishment for the oppressor. Therefore, King assures the movement’s supporters that, as children of God, they are much more than what their prejudiced society perceives them as; even though they had gone through much suffering, their struggles would soon end in glory with God’s help.

While King made his supporters confident that they would succeed with God’s help, he also sought to make them understand that patience and non-violence were essential aspects of their journey. In his “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March,” King recalls the biblical tale of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, using this example to endorse the non-violent marches of the civil rights movement. In this story, God tells Joshua, who had been leading the Israelites through the desert, that he and his people must march around the city of Jericho once a day, for six days. On the seventh day, they must march around Jericho seven times—this causes the walls of the city to collapse at the hands of God, allowing Joshua and the Israelites to conquer it. Speaking about the significance of this biblical story in his speech, King emphasizes the patience that he and his followers must maintain until the realization of their goal. “There is nothing wrong with marching . . . The battle is in our hands. And we can answer with creative nonviolence the call to higher ground to which the new directions of our struggle summons us. The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going.” Here, King assures his followers that, as long as they patiently and peacefully struggle against racial injustice, they have the upper hand in their fight. Just as Joshua triumphed at Jericho by repeatedly marching around its walls, the civil rights movement’s marches on the streets of Alabama would overcome racial segregation in America. Moreover, King uses the tale of Joshua to emphasize the immediacy of the movement’s success, asserting that America’s deliverance from racial injustice was at hand, rather than in the distant future. He believed that, just as Joshua’s marches caused Jericho’s walls to instantly crumble, his followers’ marches for justice would bring results “here and now.” Thus, by using a biblical example that illustrates how God helps those who peacefully seek their goals, King sought to convince his followers that engaging in non-violent acts such as marches would soon put an end to segregation.

The March from Selma to Montgomery (March 1965)
Led by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), this five-day march raised awareness of the difficulties faced by black southern voters, and helped the Voter Rights Act to pass later that year.
Photo Credit: http://www.digitaldocsinabox.org/images/CivilRights/images/march%20from%20Selma%20to%20Montgomery.jpg

As the most influential figure of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King rallied the advocates of freedom and justice to conquer racial prejudice in mid-twentieth century America. Asserting that citizens of color had been denied their natural rights, King urged his supporters to fight for the rights they had been promised by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. To strengthen his message to the movement, King compared the campaign for racial desegregation to the biblical tale of the Israelite Exodus. Using this story, King promoted solidarity among the civil rights movement’s proponents, gave his supporters the courage to continue their struggle for racial equality to the very end, and assured them that conducting non-violent protests and having patience were the best ways to achieve their goals. Overall, Martin Luther King brought revolutionary social change to America, bringing it closer to being the land of freedom, justice, and opportunity that its founders had envisioned.

Works Cited

Rieder, Jonathan. The Word of the Lord is upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008. Print.

Rudzka-Ostyn, Brygida. The Oratory of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X: A Study in Linguistic Stylistics. 1973; 1972. Print.

Selby, Gary S. Martin Luther King and the Rhetoric of Freedom: The Exodus Narrative in America’s Struggle for Civil Rights. 5 Vol. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2008. Print. Studies in Rhetoric and Religion.

Sundquist, Eric J. King’s Dream. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Print. Icons of America.

Warren, Mervyn A. A Rhetorical Study of the Preaching of Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., Pastor and Pulpit Orator. 1966. Print.

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