Fredrik Sunnemark. Ring Out Freedom!: The Voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. 273 pages. ISBN: 0253216591. Reviewed by James H. Cone, for the Journal of Southern Religion.


Martin Luther King, Jr., is the most influential religious figure in American history, and even arguably of any person, including presidents. He is the only American with a holiday in his name alone the only American whose meaning is embraced by people of all races, cultures and ethnic origins. King's influence is also global. As his father, Martin Luther King, Sr., ("Daddy" King) put it: "He does not belong to us, he belongs to the world." King, Jr., spoke to and for all people, not just to black and white Americans. People appeal to his name wherever there are struggles for justice and freedom. Indeed, it is difficult to find literate persons anywhere who do not know his name, recognize his voice, and associate his teaching and preaching with the power of nonviolence in the struggle for justice. If one were to name the five most influential persons in the twentieth century, no one would be surprised to find Martin Luther King, Jr., among them. This is why scholars and writers around the world continue to find him an irresistible and challenging subject to examine. 

Fredrik Sunnemark's Ring Out Freedom! is one of the recent studies about Martin Luther King, Jr.   Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at University of Trollhattan-Uddevalla, Sweden, he focuses on King's voice and how he used it in different contexts to arouse oppressed blacks to resist injustice and inspire liberal whites to support them.   Sunnemark is a reliable King interpreter and is aware of his central philosophy of love, justice, and hope and how it developed throughout the course of his civil rights activity.   There is a major difference between Martin King before and after 1965 before and after the Selma March, before and after the 1965 Los Angles Riot, before and after he took his movement to Chicago.   The Los Angeles Riot and the slums of Chicago shattered King's American Dream and turned it into a nightmare.   This nightmare exploded on the battlefields of Vietnam and transformed King's political optimism into a profound religious hope carved out of an American nightmare here and abroad.


 
"The most important contribution of Sunnemark's text is his analysis of the radical King."  

 

Sunnemark calls the post-1965 period "King's radicalization." The early King focused on the political and social equality of blacks-the Civil Rights Bill (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).   The later King focused on economic justice-the elimination of poverty and the guarantee of a job or income for all Americans.   While the achievement of political and social justice did not cost America much, economic justice would cost plenty 100 billion in the figure most often cited by King.   King saw that America's military adventures in Vietnam prevented this nation from confronting head-on the great problem of poverty at home, which was deepened by the cancer of racism.  

There is no information about King in Ring Out Freedom! not found in the writings of earlier King scholars. What one finds here is a fresh approach or a new way to examine King's legacy. Sunnemark examines very carefully several of King's addresses and books at different periods of his intellectual and political activity and shows how King shaped his message to the time, place and culture of the people to whom he was speaking.   He shows both the changes and the continuity in King's views as he sought to bring justice to the "least of these" in America and the world.  

The most important contribution of Sunnemark's text is his analysis of the radical King.   He provides a good understanding of the role of religion and the black church in King's thinking and civil rights activity and how both deepened his faith in God and the freedom of humanity.   King's "Beyond Vietnam" address at Riverside Church (April 4, 1967), his last presidential address, "Where Do We Go From Here," before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (August 1967), and his Canadian lectures in Trumpet Of Conscience (November-December 1967) are key sources for an examination of his radicalism.    This is the King that most white observers of the holiday in mainstream America seldom hear about.   They are still frozen at the 1963 "I Have a Dream" King.   The post-1965 King was moving toward Malcolm X's cultural affirmation of blackness and an economic analysis influenced by democratic socialism.   This is the anti-war King who condemned America as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."   When one reads or listens to King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech, it could easily be applied to the present day Iraq war.   The radical King is the one that America needs if this nation is going to be a creative force in establishing justice and peace in the world.  

What is most interesting about King scholarship is the huge number of texts and the conspicuous absence of white religion scholars, especially theologians.   White historians and other secular writers have written the most important texts about King.   They include: David J. Garrow's Bearing the Cross (1986), Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters (1988) and Pillar of Fire (1998), David L. Chappell's A Stone of Hope (2004) and Stewart Burns' To The Mountaintop (2004) among others.    African American scholarly reflections on King include: historian David L. Lewis's King: A Biography (1978) and religion scholars Lewis V. Baldwin's There Is a Balm in Gilead (1991) and To Make the Wounded Whole (1992) and Michael Eric Dyson's I May Not Get There With You (2000).   The most important book by a white religion scholar is Richard Lischer's The Preacher King (1995), who is a professor of homiletics.   These are just a small sample of many texts written about King in the last twenty years.   Why are white theologians so silent, especially since King was a theologian?   Is it because the subject is black and thus not worthy of serious intellectual reflection?   Judging by their long history of silence about race in their theological work, an affirmative answer seems not far from the truth.   What a missed opportunity!   Reflection on King and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements could provide an occasion for scholars to open up a much-needed dialogue on race across cultural and racial communities.   It is truly disappointing that after more than three decades since his assassination, white religion scholars have not explored the theological meaning of King and the Civil Rights Movement.  

Such has not been the case with white historians.   Since the publication of C.Vann Woodard's The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), white historians have interrogated their discipline on race and have transformed not only how they but also how Americans view their history.   Historians have laid a solid foundation for informed, critical dialogue on race in America.   Their work on King and the Civil Rights Movement has been invaluable.   Sunnemark's Ring Out Freedom! is a significant addition to this scholarship.   Let us hope that white theologians and other religion scholars will break their silence and join the discussion.   America's racial future may depend on it.   

James H. Cone, Union Theological Seminary

© 1998-2004 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234


Volume VII Main Page Advertisers jsr@admin.fsu.edu