Cover: The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr., from Harvard University PressCover: The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me in PAPERBACK

The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me

The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Eye-opening… While the various Pulitzer Prize–winning biographies of King have documented his political trajectory with admirable precision, they have also shied away from exploring the patterns of King’s mind, how his faith was channeled into language that mixed polish and fervor, aggression and empathy, as it confronted the dilemmas of black liberation. Rieder provides the best anatomy of King’s verbal imagination yet.—Scott Saul, The Nation

[This] important book on King’s rhetoric offers a more complex view of King than the sanitized version that is so popular, especially among conservative commentators.—E.J. Dionne, Jr., The Washington Post

[An] admirably diligent book… Rieder also skillfully debunks the idea that the ‘black’-talking King was ‘real,’ while the one who invoked Reinhold Niebuhr was a mere performer (like a stand-up comic, for instance), trying to appeal to powerful whites. Both Kings were real. It was hardly unknown for him to mention the likes of agape and Martin Buber to black audiences, and they were thrilled at the display of erudition.—John McWhorter, The New York Times Book Review

As Jonathan Rieder recognizes in The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me, Martin Luther King Jr. embodied the tension between the moral universalism of the black church and its racially specific character. Leading a movement dedicated to the destruction of racial barriers, King extolled the ideal of integration in hauntingly beautiful language. Yet King’s own organization was specifically designed to be a black organization, not an interracial one. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference rested upon a base of African American churches. It accepted help from whites but insisted that primary leadership rest firmly in black hands… Focusing on the words he spoke in public and in private, and examining his interactions with the blacks and whites who were closest to him, Rieder shows that attempts to define King in terms of white and black influences distort the man and his message. Whether speaking to blacks or whites, King articulated a consistent moral vision that drew upon the Bible, the tenets of liberal Protestantism, the insights of philosophy, and an idealism that was quintessentially American… By the conclusion of this invaluable [book], Rieder’s argument is wholly convincing: The key to King’s leadership ‘lay in the substance of his arguments and the commitments that animated it.’—Adam Fairclough, The Washington Post Book World

The question of black identity is maddeningly complicated. In an extraordinary new book, The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jonathan Rieder details the different cultures and subcultures to which Dr. King tailored his message with striking success. He could, in turn, be raucous, smooth, erudite, eloquent, vulgar, and even salacious. This does not mean he was a chameleon or a hypocrite. Rather, says Rieder, ‘he had an uncommon ability to glide in and out of black, white, and other idioms and identities in an elaborate dance of empathy.’ He adds, ‘The constant for King lay beyond language, beyond performance, beyond race. The core of the man was the power of his faith, his love of humanity, and an irrepressible resolve to free black people, and other people too.’ From his actions on the public stage and from our times together, that is how I remember Dr. King.—Richard John Neuhaus, First Things

[A] rich, thoughtful new book… The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me is an extremely learned book, one that Rieder has been working on for almost two decades… Anyone who takes the time to peruse The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me will have no doubt: The real Martin Luther King Jr. more often sounded like Jeremiah Wright than like Barack Obama.—David J. Garrow, The Los Angeles Times Book Review

[The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me] does a service to King’s legacy, by lifting the layers of oversimplifying myth and legend to reveal a deeper, more complex man.—Allison Samuels, Newsweek

Sociologist Rieder has produced a careful reading of Martin Luther King Jr.’s many speaking styles. Pulling together his backstage talk with black comrades, sermons, speeches in the mass rallies of the Civil Rights Movement, writings, and major public addresses, Rieder shows King’s tremendous skill in weaving together many different kinds of sources into the right form for each audience. The author argues against the view that King was authentic when speaking in a black idiom to a black audience, but artfully accommodating when using ‘white material’ before a white audience. Instead, Rieder shows that King drew easily on black folk expressions, highbrow theology, the Founding Fathers, gospel music, and, especially, the rich language of the Bible to express himself genuinely before all kinds of audiences. This book is especially valuable in comparing written versus spoken versions of the same sermons and speeches, and versions given before predominantly white and black audiences. Rieder does not paper over King’s sex talk, racial jokes, unacknowledged borrowing, and outright plagiarism, but puts all of this in the context of King’s real mastery of moving, prophetic speech.—B. Weston, Choice

Rieder provides fresh insight into the mass appeal of Martin Luther King Jr. to different communities by examining the structure and background influences of the rhetoric of his public sermons and speeches.—Charles Murray, Library Journal

Jonathan Rieder has done Dr. King and history a great service by demonstrating the complexity of King’s thought and warning us of the dangers of reducing him to any one aspect of his teaching. Few writers have paid such careful attention to what King said or why he said it, and few have worked so hard to overturn the stereotypes that surround King. All who revere the Good News of justice and reconciliation that King brought to our nation will be moved by Rieder’s pathbreaking account.—E.J. Dionne, Jr., author of Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right

Martin Luther King, Jr., the voice of the Civil Rights Movement, knew more than most that words matter, that they are fundamental to any truly democratic mass political movement. In this absolutely brilliant new book, Jonathan Rieder shows how King crafted his rhetoric with a total command of the English language in its standard English register and its African American idioms. Rieder movingly represents King as a master performer who was never less than authentic, who always matched action to thought as manifested in the beauty of his words… Fantastic, an amazing book.—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University

A marvelous book, really special, and quite different from even the best of the King books. Jonathan Rieder demonstrates that King exemplified postethnic ideals, refusing to abandon either the distinctive solidarity of black people or the mutual support that human beings could offer one another across the lines of color and faith.—David Hollinger, author of Postethnic America

Jonathan Rieder saves Martin Luther King, Jr. from the curse of canonization. He replaces the hagiographic, air-brushed images, and the kitschy plastic dolls with a brilliant reading of King’s chameleon-like gift for effortlessly gliding—in public and private—between ethnic and universal idioms, between the street and theological seminars. The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me is, then, a superb addition to King scholarship that restores our perception of this great man’s complexity, flaws, scars and profound humanity.—Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage and Dreamer: A Novel

A stunning book that offers a genuinely fresh take on the most prominent figure of the civil rights movement. Jonathan Rieder’s interpretation of King is not just incisive; it is eloquent and original.—Randall Kennedy, Michael R. Klein Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Recent News

From Our Blog

Jacket, Author Unknown: The Power of Anonymity in Ancient Rome, by Tom Geue, from Harvard University Press

Who Needs an Author?

In his new book Author Unknown: The Power of Anonymity in Ancient Rome, classicist Tom Geue asks us to work with anonymity rather than against it and to appreciate the continuing power of anonymity in our own time. Here, he discusses the history—and strength—of anonymous works of literature. Back in the roaring ’20s, I. A. Richar

‘manifold glories of classical Greek and Latin’

The digital Loeb Classical Library (loebclassics.com) extends the founding mission of James Loeb with an interconnected, fully searchable, perpetually growing virtual library of all that is important in Greek and Latin literature.