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The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
presents the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series

February 10, 2011 Event Flyer

Making a Way out of No Way:
Martin Luther King's Use of Proverbs for Civil Rights

Presented by Wolfgang Mieder

2011 Botkin Lecture Flyer for Wolfgang Mieder

The interest in proverbs as expressions of folk wisdom is as keen today as it was in ancient times. Wolfgang Mieder, who came to the United States on his own as a sixteen-year-old immigrant in 1960, has devoted most of his career to the study of this crucial genre. Among many other books, he edited the massive Dictionary of American Proverbs (1992), and compiled the two-volume International Bibliography of Paremiology and Phraseology (2009). His book Proverbs Are Never Out of Season: Popular Wisdom in the Modern Age (1993) showed that proverbs continue to turn up everywhere: in the headlines of newspapers, as slogans in advertisements, as captions of cartoons, as inscriptions on T-shirts, and also in political discourse.

For over ten years Mieder has made the study of proverbs in political discourse one of his major research areas. In his book The Politics of Proverbs: From Traditional Wisdom to Proverbial Stereotypes (1997), he analyzed the effective proverbial rhetoric of Winston S. Churchill, Adolf Hitler, and Harry S. Truman, showed how proverbs were employed by politicians and the mass media during the Cold War, and discussed proverbs that express ethnic stereotypes. In his subsequent book Proverbs Are the Best Policy: Folk Wisdom and American Politics (2005), he looked at the history of the defining proverb of American democracy, "Government of the people, by the people, for the people," with subsequent chapters considering such matters as Abigail Adams's masterful use of politically charged proverbs, the conversion of the biblical proverb "A house divided against itself cannot stand" into a political expression, the use of proverbial rhetoric in the inaugural addresses of US presidents, and the proverbial language in the World War II correspondence between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Mieder followed these essay collections with full-length books on the use of proverbs by Abraham Lincoln (1998), Frederick Douglass (2001), and Barack Obama (2009).

After addressing the broad topic of Civil Rights in all these books, it seemed a natural development for Mieder to turn to Martin Luther King. In barely forty years of life, King (1929-1968) distinguished himself as one of the greatest social reformers of modern times. A vast array of biographies and studies have celebrated him as a civil rights leader, a defender of nonviolence in the struggle for desegregation, a champion of the poor, an antiwar proponent, and a broad-minded visionary. As King struggled proverbially to make a way out of no way for African Americans and others, proverbial communication became part of his nonviolent strategy to bring about social, economic, and political change. As he fought with words and deeds for a better world, he relied to an impressive extent on proverbs to add expressiveness to his powerful messages.

King's many recorded communications in the form of sermons, speeches, interviews, letters, essays, and several books, are replete with Bible proverbs such as "Love your enemies," "He who lives by the sword shall perish be the sword," and "Man does not live by bread alone.” He also freely used folk proverbs, such as "Time and tide wait for no man," "Last hired, first fired," "No gain without pain," and "Making a way out of no way." He delighted in citing quotations that have long become proverbs, to wit "No man is an island," "All men are created equal," and "No lie can live forever." King recycles these bits of traditional wisdom in various contexts, varying his proverbial message as he addresses the multifaceted issues of civil rights. His rhetorical effectiveness is thus informed to a considerable degree by his skillful employment of proverbs to bring to life his vivid arguments for civil and human rights.

Wolfgang Mieder is Professor of German and Folklore at the University of Vermont. After joining its faculty in 1970, he was chairperson of the Department of German and Russian from 1977 to 2008. In 1980 he was named University Scholar, and in 1987 he received the George Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award. In 1990 he was named Vermont Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. He also received the Certificate of Merit by the American Association of Teachers of German in 1995 and was honored in the same year with a Kroepsch-Maurice Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 1997 he received the Giuseppe Pitrè International Folklore Prize for his book on The Politics of Proverbs (1997), in 2002 he was the recipient of the Pizzagalli Celebration of Excellence Award, and in 2009 he was honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award from the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University. His expertise in literary and folklore studies earned him guest professorships at the University of California at Berkeley (1980) and at the University of Freiburg in Germany (1987). He is the author of many articles and has written or edited well over 150 books which have been published in English or German (some also in Chinese and Hungarian) in Africa, Asia, Europe as well as North and South America.

While his scholarship ranges from fairy tales, legends, folk songs, and nursery rhymes to philological and literary studies, Prof. Mieder's expertise lies above all in international paremiology, i.e., the study of proverbs. Many of his publications deal with the use and function of proverbs in literature, the mass media, art, politics, advertising, etc. He is also the founding editor of Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship (1984ff.) which is published annually at the University of Vermont.

AFC logo The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.


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