“Hearing the Words of A Prophet“
A Review of
Martin Luther King, Jr.:
The Essential Box Set.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
Martin Luther King, Jr.:
The Essential Box Set.
15 Cd’s: Hachette Audio, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon – Martin Luther King – Essential Box Set ]
Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of, if not the finest American orator, of the twentieth century. Following in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass and many other renowned Black orators, King spoke powerfully for the causes of freedom and justice, whether in pulpit of his home church, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama or speaking as the voice of the Civil Rights movement in Washington, D.C. and throughout the South. And now thanks to Hachette Audio, we have a high-quality collection of twenty-three of King’s finest sermons and speeches: Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Essential Box Set. The narrators who introduce these talks by Martin Luther King emphasize that he was, first and foremost, a preacher, and that his primary identity was located in the Church (see also the book excerpt on King below). Even when speaking to broader audiences, he spoke the prophetic words of a preacher, connecting with his audiences on shared virtues such as freedom, equality and justice. It has been important for me, when thinking of Dr. King, not only to see the words that he spoke on the printed page (or computer screen) but also to hear his voice speaking the words, and for many years now, I have been collecting vintage LP’s with recordings of King’s speeches and sermons. While I certainly will not be getting rid of my vinyl recordings any time soon, I am delighted to have recordings of the same talks (and more) in a cleaner, more durable format and one that can more easily be shared with our sons and daughter as well as others.
This box set is comprised of two “volumes” that correspond to two earlier books in which these sermons and speeches were originally collected in written form: A Call to Conscience (11 speeches) and A Knock at Midnight (12 sermons). Each talk is prefaced by an introduction that sets it nicely in its context; these introductions were composed and/or read by a cast of well-known figures from Rosa Parks and Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King to the Dalai Lama and the late Senator Ted Kennedy. (Apparently, the introductions were written for the print volumes and given that almost a decade has passed since their initial publication, some of the intros’ authors were now deceased — or otherwise unavailable — and their intros were read by others for this audio edition.) The content spans the breadth of King’s work. Of course, there are many speeches related to the Civil Rights movement here (e.g., “The Address to the First Montgomery Improvement Association Mass Meeting” and the familiar “I’ve been to the Mountaintop”), but there are also denouncements of war (“Beyond Vietnam”) as well as sermons for the edification of churches (“Loving Your Enemies” and “Paul’s Letter to American Christians”). As one sits and listens to these wonderful recordings, it is not difficult to imagine oneself sitting in a church pew or among the throng at a Civil Rights rally, shouting “Amen!” as King hammers home his points.
As Father Bryan Massingale, who teaches a course on the ethics of Martin Luther King at Marquette University, has noted in a recent essay, there is a great temptation today to dismiss Dr. King and his message. He has become just another mythic figure who is respected but taken as inimitable. Or, as I have seen among some evangelicals, his marital infidelities and other flaws overshadow the rest of his work and he is just as easily dismissed. Similarly, there is also a tendency among whites to focus primarily on his Civil Rights achievements, which permits recognition of him as a black hero, but one of minimal relevance to whites. The time has come for a reevaluation of King’s life and work, one that does not mythologize him, but also at the same time recognizes the relevancy of his message for all of Christ’s followers. Consider his words from the sermon “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” (imagining here what the Apostle Paul might write to churches in the U.S.):
The misuse of Capitalism can also lead to tragic exploitation. This has so often happened in your nation. They tell me that one tenth of one percent of the population controls more than forty percent of the wealth. … God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe “enough and to spare” for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.
How true these words ring today, when the gap between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor is even wider in our nation today than it was in the time of Dr. King. Or, in our age of interminable war, do we pause to consider the pointed relevance of his arguments against war, like the following given in his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam”:
I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them. … This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
Are his words any less true today in regard to the citizens of Iraq or Afghanistan? If, as prominent theologian J. Kameron Carter has imagined, Christian theology’s salvation from being a “discourse of death” will come through the witness of Black churches and other oppressed peoples, then we need to reconsider the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., and rediscover its striking relevance for the issues of racism, poverty and war, that are no less pressing today than they were during Dr. King’s lifetime. And there is no better place for us to start than with hearing his words spoken with his own voice, as this box set offers us a prime opportunity to enjoy. May we be as inspired as his original hearers were, and may Martin Luther King’s messages of peace, freedom and equality take root in our hearts and minds and may we have courage to allow ourselves to be transformed more fully into the image of Christ Jesus.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com