Where the Sacred and Secular Harmonize

Birmingham Mass Meeting Rhetoric and the Prophetic Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement

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David G. Holmes
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , October
     212 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


David G. Holmes’s Where the Sacred and Secular Harmonize explores the rhetoric employed by leaders of the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham. The volume was inspired by a lecture that included a recording of Martin Luther King’s May 3, 1963 speech to the people of Birmingham after water cannons and dogs were set on school-age children earlier that day. Holmes’s close readings of other Birmingham mass meeting speakers comprise the data: Fred Shuttlesworth, James Bevel, Ralph Abernathy, James Farmer, and Roy Wilkins. In addition to a rhetorical analysis, Holmes situates each of the speakers within their respective backgrounds and contexts, particularly organizational affiliation and education. At the outset, Holmes asks what abiding rhetorical and cultural relevance might be derived from a study of orators other than King. Do the Birmingham mass meeting rhetors (clergy and non) have something salient to reveal about this moment and beyond to the current politically charged culture? Holmes argues that the mass meetings of April and May 1963 have been underplayed by historians and under-examined by rhetoricians.

The May 2nd mass meeting was a critical moment for the movement, coming on the heels of the first time schoolchildren had participated in demonstrations, which resulted in some students being arrested. Holmes illustrates how James Farmer’s speech that night rhetorically globalized the Birmingham campaign and framed it as a human rights struggle, thus making the case for how this localized issue transcended its regional boundaries. Farmer sought to galvanize international support of the movement. 

Holmes frames his analysis via a specific conceptualization of prophecy: a spiritual, moral, conceptual, and pragmatic orientation to speak truth to power and defend the marginalized (4). He rightly directs the reader to understand prophets and prophecy as terms that are not strictly confined to religious contexts (hence the title of the book). Holmes identifies how prophetic rhetoric can be used to critique the assumption by some civil rights rhetors of America as a chosen nation (10) and examines the limitations of such assumptions, particularly regarding matters of racial justice. 

Holmes sets up his argument by focusing on scholars who celebrate the prophetic as an effective means of civic engagement: Cornel West, David L. Chappell, and George Shulman. Where the Sacred and Secular Harmonize aptly identifies the tension between religion and politics as mediated through race throughout the text, and concludes by juxtaposing the Obama administrations with the mythical and sanitized memories of Civil Rights Movement heroes (particularly Martin Luther King Jr.) as an argument against notions of a post-racial America. In the year since the book’s publication, it has become glaringly clear that Holmes and others are correct. Holmes ends the book by looking at King’s legacy as filtered through contemporary voices, providing an analysis of King’s most famous speech (“I Have A Dream”) and Obama’s 2007 speech commemorating the anniversary of Selma. The author provides helpful historical insight for the current era of strong religious rhetoric and dog whistle politics.

Scholars of religion might well read this book as an important window into the complex history of the Black church and its place in the Civil Rights movement. The author’s focus on mass meeting rhetoric honors leaders of the movement whose rhetoric has not been sufficiently studied, and gives credence to the importance of the Black church as a center of intellectual, cultural, and social importance. 

Holmes acknowledges the importance of the Bible in the rhetorical strategies employed, rhetoric that had as a catalyst the incongruity between the moral codes of the biblical tradition and the reality of Black lives constrained by institutionalized racism. He spends time connecting the speakers’ backgrounds, family ties, education, and social contexts as important building blocks for their commitments to the Civil Rights movement and their rhetorical style, which he identifies as in keeping with the tradition of the biblical prophets. For instance, James Farmer’s prophetic stance was “rooted in but not regulated by religion” (94). While Farmer was seminary trained and the son of a preacher, he, as a self-described humanist, held a secular prophetic voice that engaged social gospel, with an emphasis on social over gospel. 

At the book’s conclusion, Holmes examines the “contested legacies” of the Civil Rights movement. The author identifies the growing number of detractors and those who grew disillusioned by King toward the end of his life, and compares that situation with the complicated reception of Barack Obama as the country’s first Black president. Both men, extraordinary orators, bore the burden of representing a great hope for America’s racial future.

Most profound and helpful to me is Holmes’s concluding chapter, in which he reflects upon being a scholar of color teaching the Civil Rights movement in conservative and politically charged contexts. Holmes reflects upon pedagogical choices, including which texts students read, the kinds of questions he asks students to consider, and his own process of needing to de-romanticize some of the heroes of the Civil Rights movement. His teaching is reflective of his own experience as a Lilly fellow reading and meeting some of the stalwarts of the movement in a racially diverse cohort, in which white silence and white speech also shaped the discourse about Black people and the recounting and understanding of Black political and religious history. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Regina Shands Stoltzfus is Associate Professor of Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies at Goshen College in Goshen, IN.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David G. Holmes is Professor of English and Rhetoric at Pepperdine University. The author of Revisiting Racialized Voice (2004), he is a frequent presenter at national conferences and has published articles in Rhetoric ReviewCollege EnglishBlack CameraJournal of Black Studies, and Journal of Communication and Religion.


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