On April 4, 2018, America commemorated the 50th year anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. The social media landscape was full of think pieces, editorials, long-form essays and reflections that centered on the life and legacy of America’s prophet of nonviolence. News stations and newspapers from all around the world produced stories and interviewed people who lived during King’s time and those who did not. However, much of the commemoration focused on the memory of King and how his words continue to shape and frame our current challenges and problems.
Anticipating the conversations that would take place during the 50th year commemoration, I thought that a journal in our discipline should devote a special issue that examines the rhetoric of King. I thought this would give scholars in our field an opportunity to (re)discover the rhetoric of King and to study one of America’s finest orators. It would also give us the opportunity to add to what is a surprisingly small collection of scholarship solely devoted to the rhetoric of King. To give a comparison, a search in the Communication and Mass Media index reveals a shocking discovery. Since his assassination in 1968, only thirty-five articles examine the rhetoric of King. Compare this to articles examining the rhetoric of President Barack Obama. Since 2005, seventy-nine articles examine the rhetoric of Obama. Therefore, despite Edwin Black’s observations that King left a very “considerable body of written work—speeches, articles and books” and that King’s “influence on the character of public persuasion is by itself sufficient to regard King’s rhetorical efforts as revolutionary,” the dearth of scholarship in rhetoric on King speaks volumes.2
However, I did not want to lock King in the past. The commemorations that occurred throughout the world pointed to contemporary understanding and meanings of King’s rhetoric. We wanted essays that would not only ground themselves in the rhetoric of King but also point to his legacy 50 years later after his death. We looked for essays that centered on people, groups or institutions that draw inspiration from King’s rhetoric. In short, in this special issue, “From the Mountain Top and Beyond: Contemporary Meanings and Understandings of the Rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr., 50 Years Later,” we sought to connect the historical to the contemporary to show the vibrancy of King’s rhetoric and how people interpret that rhetoric today.
I argue that this misreading of King’s later rhetoric, especially in the last year of his life, leads to a misremembering of King’s legacy and the challenge that King left.
Read the rest here.