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African American Religious Intellectuals and the Theological Foundations of the Civil Rights Movement, 1930–55

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2009

Dennis C. Dickerson
Dennis C. Dickerson a professor of History and a member of the Graduate Department of Religion at vanderbilt University. On January 8, 2005, he delivered this paper as the presidential address to the American Society of Church History.


Among the innumerable warriors against legalized racial segregation and discrimination in American society, the iconic Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as a principal spokesman and symbol of the black freedom struggle. The many marches that he led and the crucial acts of civil disobedience that he spurred during the 1950s and 1960s established him and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as rallying points for civil rights activities in several areas in the American South. King's charisma among African Americans drew from his sermonic rhetoric and its resonance with black audiences. Brad R. Braxton, a scholar of homiletics, observed that King as a black preacher “made the kinds of interpretive moves that historically have been associated with African American Christianity and preaching.” Braxton adds that “for King Scripture was a storybook whose value resided not so much in the historical reconstruction or accuracy of the story in the text, but rather in the evocative images, in the persuasive, encouraging anecdotes of the audacious overcoming of opposition, and in its principles about the sacredness of the human person.” Hence, King's use of this hermeneutical technique with scriptural texts validated him as a spokesman for African Americans. On a spectrum stretching from unlettered slave exhorters in the nineteenth century to sophisticated pulpiteers in the twentieth century, King stood as a quintessential black preacher, prophet, and jeremiad “speaking truth to power” and bringing deliverance to the disinherited.

Copyright © American Society of Church History 2005

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