“If I Can Help Somebody”: The Rhetorical Influence of #MLK

“If I Can Help Somebody”: The Rhetorical Influence of #MLK October 20, 2017

MLK statueIn the Spring of 2017, I taught a graduate seminar that focused on the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. during the last year of his life. More specifically, we examined King within the African American prophetic tradition and placed special emphasis on his prophetic pessimism.

In this second panel, students presented versions of their final papers in the class for the Graduate Association of African American History Conference held at the University of Memphis. The title of this panel was “If I Can Help Somebody”: The Rhetorical Influence of Martin Luther King Jr.”


Keven Rudrow:

“From the Civil Rights Movement to “Black Lives Matter”: Framing Social Protest through King’s Rhetoric of Militant Nonviolent Disobedience and Self-Assertive Personhood”- University of Memphis


In 2013, Black Lives Matter (BLM) was founded, following the death of Trayvon Martin, to stand in solidarity regarding the injustice and inequality experienced by Black people in the United States. Although standing for justice and equality for Black people, the political right has framed BLM as a domestic terrorist organization operating outside of what is imagined to be King’s dream. In this essay, I examine television interviews and speeches delivered by King toward the end of his life. I argue these texts function as rhetorical fragments that generate insight into what King viewed as the ideal social movement characterized by militant nonviolent disobedience and self-assertive personhood. Furthermore, I use King’s notion of militant nonviolent disobedience and self-assertive personhood as a conceptual framework for examining the political right’s characterization of BLM as a domestic terrorist organization.

Watkins Dickerson:

“‘You Are Somebody’: King and the Prophetic Rhetoric of Rev. Henry Logan Starks”- University of Memphis


Many have studied and appreciated the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. with many of these focused on King’s arguments and ideas as part of complete texts. Especially, in the last year of his life, some tend to note the significant shift in King’s discourse as operating in a vacuum. However, it must be noted King’s rhetoric was not formed on its own and was certainly influenced by a larger corpus of writings, speeches, and sermons framing a trajectory consistent with speaking truth to power. While I am not arguing as some have that King borrowed or as Dyson argues, sampled much of his rhetoric, I am arguing that some of the same prophetic treatments King produced and proclaim were evidenced in local movements all across the country. One such movement was the Sanitation Workers’ Strike in 1968 and the rhetoric of Henry Logan Starks Jr. In this paper, I examine Starks’ prophetic rhetoric inspired by King.

Steven Tramel Gaines

“John A. Scott Sr.’s Response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassination”- University of Memphis


John A. Scott Sr. preached a sermon, “The Mind of Christ,” on April 14 for the Church of Christ at White Station in Memphis after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. This paper claims that the sermon, in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., prophetically called for repentance but was shaped by social privilege. The sermon reminded listeners of their social privilege and challenged them to repent of their participation in the injustice that led to King’s death. Although white privilege blunted Scott’s prophetic rhetoric, he challenged the practice of ignoring racial and economic privileges and injustices.


Commentator: Dr. Andre E. Johnson, University of Memphis

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