Author Post: Looking for Moses from Frances Harper to Martin Luther King, Jr.

April has long been a decisive month in U.S. history. The Civil War started when Confederates fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 and ended when Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated the next week. Just over a century later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. As I discuss in my new book, Excavating Exodus: Biblical Typology and Racial Solidarity in African American Literature, Black writers turned to Moses’ story to grapple with these events.

In 1865, the first night of Passover, the Jewish holiday celebrating deliverance from Egyptian slavery, fell on April 14, the day before Lincoln’s assassination. This confluence of events must have seemed divinely ordained to abolitionists, who often likened Lincoln to Moses. On April 19, 1865, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper wrote to fellow abolitionist and friend William Still, sharing her grief at Lincoln’s death:

“Moses, the meekest man on earth, led the children of Israel over the Red Sea, but was not permitted to see them settled in Canaan. Mr. Lincoln has led up through another Red Sea to the table land of triumphant victory, and God has seen fit to summon for the new era another man.”

Harper devoted much of the rest of her career to imagining what kind of man—or woman—could serve as Moses for the new era. Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, failed utterly in that role. On January 31, 1867, Harper addressed the Social, Civil, and Statistical Association of the Colored People of Philadelphia at Philadelphia’s National Hall. In her speech, entitled “National Salvation,” Harper found it more than a “little strange” that “Andrew Johnson, after having promised the colored people that he would be their Moses, should turn around, and instead of helping them to freedom, should clasp hands with the Rebels and traitors of the country.” Johnson favored quickly reintegrating the former Confederate states into the Union, opposed the Freedmen’s Bureau, vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and accepted the election of former Confederates to Congress. With Lincoln dead and Johnson a derelict Moses, Harper believed that Black men and women themselves had to claim Mosaic leadership.

Before the Civil War, Harper had called for elite African Americans to fully pledge themselves to abolition. Published in the Anglo-African Magazine in 1859, “Our Greatest Want” refutes the idea that lack of economic prosperity is holding back racial progress. Harper sought to level class divisions among free Blacks by arguing that “every gift, whether gold or talent, fortune or genius” must “subserve the cause of crushed humanity.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed Harper’s attitude toward Exodus. Observers identified King with Moses once he became the Civil Rights movement’s face and voice after the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. Yet, instead of presenting himself as God’s sole messenger, King exhorted others to join the movement. In “A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in the Area of Race Relations,” a freedom rally speech delivered in St. Louis on April 10, 1957, King exhorted “ministers, and lay leaders, and civic leaders, and businessmen, and professional people all over the nation” to “use the talent and finances God has given them, and lead the people on toward the Promised Land of freedom.”

That same month, King addressed Black fraternity members in Memphis. He urged his audience not to forget the masses, who “stand today amid the wilderness crying out for some promised land, and all they want is some Moses to lead them out.” King enjoined his elite peers to “rise up out of the state of lethargy and lead the way into the promised land.” Harper held that free, educated Blacks had a special responsibility to those who remained enslaved. King extended the same challenge to his white-collar audience of doctors, teachers, lawyers, professors, administrators, and ministers to devote their “academic power” and “economic power” to fulfilling a Mosaic role toward the masses. In Excavating Exodus, I trace this view of Moses as a paragon of race loyalty back to David Walker’s Appeal.

On April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination, King presciently characterized himself as Moses gazing on the Promised Land in “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” By likening Memphis’s striking sanitation workers to the ancient Hebrews, King identified Mayor Henry Loeb with Pharaoh. King describes how “whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt” he used his “favorite formula” of keeping the “slaves fighting among themselves.” He asserts that when the “slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.” This rendition of Exodus emphasizes collective action over the power of a prophetic leader. King ends the speech by comparing himself to Moses at the end of his life. Like Moses, King has “seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

Harper and King are just two of the many Black intellectuals to reinterpret Moses’ story in their own context. By asking how Moses became a touchstone for notions of racial belonging, Excavating Exodus illuminates how Black intellectuals reinvented the Mosaic model of charismatic male leadership.