"I've been interested in issues of race since junior high school when my progressive Quaker school let me skip a chemistry test to picket for civil rights in Philadelphia," recalls Jonathan Rieder, professor of sociology at Barnard. Rieder's youthful passion and forward-thinking education formed the basis for his life's work, and decades later, he is now a leading author and academic, specializing in the study of race and class in America. Rieder has researched and written about a wide range of issues in this field for the past three decades, from white backlash in working class neighborhoods to conflicts in immigrant communities.
His latest book, The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr., offers readers a comprehensive analysis of both the public and private oratory of one of America's greatest civil rights leaders. "I wanted to give readers a backstage view of King. I wanted to show how he straddled two worlds— how he was able to use language to reach out to the larger white society in one way and then how he used language in a different way to connect to close friends and church members," says Rieder, whose book, which has been featured on NPR, PBS's Tavis Smiley, and C-SPAN'S Book TV, has drawn enthusiastic reviews.
Rieder says two things permitted him to cover King's life in such an intimate fashion—access to archival tapes of King's mass meetings, sermons and speeches, and interviews with those remaining from his inner circle, including Ambassador Andrew Young, Reverend C.T. Vivien, Reverend Joseph T. Lowery, and Reverend Wyatt T. Walker. He also talked to King's foot soldiers, the rough and tumble crew, who organized southern towns in advance of a King appearance. "One of them told me that while he'd been interviewed countless times, the chapter devoted to their work [in Word of the Lord] was the only one that 'got it right' and that he 'began to well up as he read it.' When I heard that, it was one of my proudest moments," Rieder says.
Rieder came to Barnard from Yale in 1989 and served as chair of the Sociology department from 1989 to 2004. His scholarly pursuits are focused on the sociology of race, culture, pluralism and ethnicity in the United States, and politics and language. His dual passion for teaching and writing is evident in his impressive body of work. In addition to his latest title, Rieder is also author of Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against Liberalism, and editor of The Fractious Nation: Unity and Division in Contemporary American Life. Between 1995 and 2001, Rieder was the founding co-editor of CommonQuest: The Magazine of Black-Jewish Relations, which won national acclaim from the media and others for its creative and novel coverage of racial, ethnic and religious conflicts in the United States and beyond. "Open it up and be amazed," wrote The Washington Post. His talents for reporting and writing have led him to cover stories such as the race-related killings in Howard Beach, black-Korean conflict in Brooklyn, and black-Jewish tension in Crown Heights. Rieder has written regularly for The New York Times Sunday Book Review and The New Republic, of which he once served as a contributing editor.
Rieder, who recently finished a whirlwind book tour for Word of the Lord, is in the midst of teaching this semester. Rieder currently teaches a course entitled, "Unity and Division in the United States," which focuses on the key cultural and political divisions in American life, including conflicts over race and immigration. The presidential campaign naturally provided good discussion material for the course.
"It's interesting to compare Obama with Martin Luther King, Jr. It's true they both have come to stand for a 'trans-racial ideal' but that does not quite capture the nuances of their relationship to race or their quite different paths to that role," says Rieder. "Despite his profound universalism and love of humanity, Martin Luther King, Jr. was steeped in blackness; although he was a crossover artist, he spent most of his life in the company of other black people beyond the scrutiny of the larger society, joshing, preaching and exhorting in black venues."
"As King moved out into the larger white society," Rieder continues, "he simply expanded his repertoire of styles and idioms. But his initial, most primal identities were unapologetically black and Christian. By contrast, Obama began with a kind of eclectic mix of identities, and only came to his 'black' and Christian identities rather late in life. In a sense, he had to adopt these identities."
Because of Rieder's in-depth experience covering issues of race and class division in America, he is adept at offering analysis of these issues for the media. In a recent radio interview with Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More, Rieder talked about the controversy surrounding Obama's former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and whether Wright's fiery speeches are similar to some of King's lesser-known sermons.
"I would not put the two men together; they are very, very different. However, King's later speeches [like the one after the Watts riots] did draw tremendous criticism," Rieder told Martin. "But King meant to unsettle the nation…to confront the nation about racism, about war, about the hunger of children… There was nothing easy about his vision." Rieder says that while things have certainly changed in today's society, especially after this year's election, issues of race, class and ethnic identity still loom large in America, which means that he and his students will have plenty of material to research and write about for many years to come.
— Maya Dollarhide