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Understanding MLK Day's Controversial Comments


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

People are still talking about two speeches made by Democrats on Monday that included racial references or overtones. Both Senator Hillary Clinton and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin made controversial statements on Martin Luther King Day. Nagin predicted that in his words, New Orleans would be a chocolate city again, because that's the way God wants it to be. He has now apologized for that speech. Speaking at a church in Harlem on Monday, Senator Clinton said the Republican-led House of Representatives has been run like a plantation. Today First Lady Laura Bush called the Senator's remark a ridiculous comment.

Commentator Robert Franklin is a professor of theology and he says that to understand what Senator Clinton and Mayor Nagin were trying to say, it helps to understand the rhetorical tradition they were following.


The black church has always been a treasure trove of grand and poetic rhetoric. Just think of the preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr. On occasion that rhetoric seeps out of the church pulpit and pews into barbershops and beauty salons. People repeat the most delicious phrases and images that they've heard in church. But it's a rare thing indeed to hear politicians use the church's evocative and humorous vernacular to describe secular political realities.

This past week we've been treated to a veritable feast of such rhetorical offerings. Senator Hillary Clinton said that the House of Representatives was run like a plantation. While mayor Ray Nagin referred to his determined but humbled city as a chocolate city. When I hear words like that I usually know their intended audience and effect. In the antebellum South, the plantation was a place of exclusion and privilege. The ultimate country club where everyone knew his or her assigned status and role. Blacks were the ultimate outsiders and were only seen when a service was needed. Otherwise they quietly maintain and operated the plantation but never enjoyed its benefits and prosperity. Occasional and courageous protests were either harshly punished or easily ignored.

When blacks hear the word plantation, all of that history rushes in and we immediately grasp the political situation. Plantation is shorthand for an immoral concentration of resources, exclusion and the arrogance that accompanies unchecked power. Senator Clinton used the P-word in a speech at a Harlem church on the King holiday celebration. She even added the phrase, you know what I'm talking about as if to underscore her appropriation of black church talk. But her use of that word may arouse more than she realizes.

In the black church, oral communication occurs at a call and response pattern. So the Senator preached but certain members of the House aren't saying amen. I don't think her rhetoric was playing the race card or was really over the line no more than Newt Gingrich's similar use of the P-word when Democrats enjoyed a majority in the House. Maybe Speaker Hastert and her other critics ought to leave the big house on the hill, I won't say what it resembles and visit a black church or two.

And as for Mayor Nagin who invoked God while declaring that New Orleans would become a chocolate or majority black city. What can I say? Maybe he was trying to shore up support with black voters who for the most part didn't say amen to him in the last election. Politicians should feel free to come to the black church but they should also be cautious about repeating what they hear.

BLOCK: Robert Franklin is a professor of theology at Emery University in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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