Martin Luther King focus of new book, course on non-violence

Photo of ASU English professor Keith Miller

This semester, ASU's Keith Miller has a new book on Martin Luther King, Jr. and a new course on non-violence and the civil rights movement.

Miller is a professor of English and faculty affiliate of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and his work focuses on the rhetoric of the civil rights movement. A leading expert on the speeches and oratory of Martin Luther King, Jr., he is the author of the widely cited “Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources.”

His newest book, “Martin Luther King’s Biblical Epic: His Final Great Speech,” will be the focus of a discussion and book signing at 7 p.m., Jan. 13, at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz.

Miller also has developed a new, transdisciplinary class, “Non-violence and the Civil Rights Movement,” that he is teaching for the first time this semester. The class, which is cross-listed in English, History and Religious Studies, was developed with a grant from the Hardt-Nickachos Peace Studies Endowment, a program within the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict that seeks to foster new approaches to the study and teaching of peace at ASU.

We sat down with him recently to discuss his new book, the class, and their relevance for contemporary events.

What inspired you to write this book?

I wrote this book partly because no one has ever written a book of any kind about Martin Luther King’s final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” This gap in scholarship exists even though, with the exception of “I Have a Dream,” his final speech is the best known of his approximately 2,500 orations. His best friend and quite a few others think that it was his greatest speech.

I also wrote the book because people who celebrate the King holiday often memorialize an extremely oversimplified version of King that ignores his later years and his deep desire to eliminate poverty. He gave the last speech in support of long-suffering, impoverished garbage workers in Memphis. He fully understood that repealing laws of segregation did not end poverty. 

What understanding of King, his speeches and/or the civil rights movement does this book provide that you can’t find elsewhere?

Believe it or not, few people trained in English or communication studies have ever analyzed King’s language. There are only three scholarly books about “I Have a Dream.” Biographers who write about King often simply quote a few lines from a few of his speeches without attempting to analyze his language. They say that it was inspiring without saying why.

King graduated from Boston University with a doctorate in theology and a dissertation on formal theology. Many scholars, especially those in religious studies, research his theology. But he also had a lot of training in the Bible. In the process of writing this book, I realized that no one writes much about his interpretation of the Bible. In his last speech he offers a tour of the Bible, from the second book (Exodus) to the last book (Revelation). So I try to address questions that haven’t been addressed before: Why does he choose some Biblical books and themes and not others? How can he explain developments in Memphis as a new chapter in the Exodus? How can he argue that Biblical narratives continue in a contemporary labor dispute? How can he attempt to revive Hebrew prophecy and speak like a prophet? What is his system of explaining the Bible?

I also examine King’s relationship to Judaism and his re-definition of Judaism as the absolute, bedrock foundation of Christianity. This interpretation of Judaism rejects the dominant Christian attitude toward Judaism that has prevailed over the last 2,000 years.

Did the process of researching and writing this book change any of your previous ideas about King or the civil rights movement?

Speeches of other civil rights leaders appeared in print during the years that I was writing this book. While there are rhetorical differences, it is fascinating to see the rhetorical similarities between King’s speeches and those of other important civil rights pioneers, such as Fannie Lou Hamer and Fred Shuttlesworth. Many attribute King’s eloquence to his training at a Pennsylvania seminary and at Boston University. Yet these other African-American leaders are also quite eloquent, and they never benefited from fancy schooling in the North. Reading these speeches strengthened my belief that King’s eloquence stems mainly from his African-American roots in the South.

You are teaching a class on “Non-violence and the Civil Rights Movement” for the first time this spring. What gave you the idea for the class? Did writing the book affect what you will be teaching?

I have participated in several interdisciplinary faculty seminars organized by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict where we brainstormed about peace studies. A call for new classes supported by the Center’s Hardt-Nickachos Peace Studies Endowment gave me a chance to pursue these interests further.

My idea was to use this class to look at the concept of non-violence within the civil rights and other movements in the U.S. and their relationship to other movements across the world. I am interested in exploring connections among different movements at different times, while at the same time not being overly glib about this. As such, readings for the class will come from Gandhi, David Cortright, King, Gene Sharp and others.

One of the ways the book helps the class is that I encourage students to take many different approaches to studying the language of the civil rights movement. I expose them to other leaders’ speeches and to the issue of feminism raised by Pauli Murray, Casey Hayden and others in the movement. I completely rebel against the widespread tendency to expose students only to “I Have a Dream” or “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Understanding those two discourses alone tells us very little about the civil rights movement, which was the largest mass movement for human rights in American history.

You mention Gandhi and the interconnectedness of movements across the world. What was the relationship between King and Gandhi?

People think King was up reading Gandhi all night, but it is important to understand that the African-American press had been following Gandhi since the early 1930s and 1940s. Some of the political leaders, such as A. Phillip Randolph, had organized conferences about Gandhi and they had been trying to figure out a way to bring Gandhi and Gandhian practices to the U.S.

Two of King’s most important mentors, Benjamin Mays and Howard Thurman, actually went to India in the 1930s and 1940s to figure out how to enact his practices in the U.S. Gandhi made a famous prediction to Thurman, in which he regretted not having made nonviolence more visible as a practice worldwide and suggested that American blacks would succeed where he had failed.

Your work brings up a common tension within historical studies between the “great person” approach versus the recognition of the context and community around them.

I think that some of King’s public image and the scholarship about him does not give the community enough credit. I attempt to rectify this conclusion in my work.

There are lots of people extremely important to the civil rights movement who are seriously unrecognized. There are plenty of women in the movement – Ella Baker, Fanny Lou Hamer, Ruby Doris Robinson and Gloria Richardson, for example – and many more who deserve to have community centers, streets, freeways and schools named after them.

This is not to say that you want a movement to be totally leaderless. A leader like King is important for the cohesion and solidarity of the movement, helping all to work toward clear goals. But a movement is never just one man or woman.

When you look at a movement like Occupy Wall Street (OWS) do you see the attempt at being leaderless a possible stumbling block? How do you see the Arab Spring?

The lack of a leader can be problematic, but the lack of publicly perceived goals can be as well. That is a real problem with OWS. King made the same mistake when he went to Albany, Ga., where he lead a big campaign and it basically fizzled and did not achieve anything by all accounts. One of the most important things he and his staff learned was the need for tangible, defined, achievable goals.

The Arab Spring is particularly interesting to me – Egypt and Tunisia especially – because for the most part they were exemplary Gandhian campaigns of protest and civil disobedience with the successful overthrow of the dictatorships. I think that is fresh evidence of the power of non-violence. Though this success brings up very important questions: How do you transition from protest to politics? How do you institutionalize the gains that you have made and prevent reversals? These are questions of great importance in understanding the process of non-violent resistance.

We have talked quite a bit about King and Gandhi, both deeply spiritual men. Do you find that religion has an important role to play in non-violent movements?

I want to look at this question in the course. Most of the people involved in these types of movements, Gandhi, King, Chavez, Tutu, tend to be very religious and use religious language in their appeals. But many progressives in the U.S. and Europe appear to be non-religious. There is a famous non-violent theorist, Gene Sharp, who tries to look at the whole process from a secular/political science point of view.

How do you mesh different religious and secular traditions when trying to talk about non-violence? It is a question that needs more work and is something I look forward to exploring with students in this class.

What’s the next book on your horizon?

I am now writing a book about “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, which is one of the most popular of all American autobiographies. Yet some of it is patently fiction. It appeared in print six months after Malcolm X’s death. It is very possible that Malcolm X’s collaborator, Alex Haley, manufactured much of the fiction, rather than Malcolm X himself. Whether Malcolm X or Haley controlled the book is a fascinating question. We don’t even know if Malcolm X approved of the book. People often write about the grand meaning of Malcolm X. I like to look at texts, words and language. Much more than anything else, Malcolm X was an orator. 

Interview conducted and condensed by Richard Ricketts, operations and communications intern, and Carolyn Forbes, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.