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I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.

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So much has changed since the glory days of the civil rights movement--and so much has stayed the same. African Americans command their place at every level of society, from the lunch counter to the college campus to the corporate boardroom--yet the gap between the American middle class and the black poor is as wide as ever. Hollywood casts a black actor as president of the United States without provoking a word of protest, but a black man is savagely dragged to his death because of the color of his skin. The ...
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Overview

So much has changed since the glory days of the civil rights movement--and so much has stayed the same. African Americans command their place at every level of society, from the lunch counter to the college campus to the corporate boardroom--yet the gap between the American middle class and the black poor is as wide as ever. Hollywood casts a black actor as president of the United States without provoking a word of protest, but a black man is savagely dragged to his death because of the color of his skin. The hip-hop culture that springs from the imaginations of urban black youth (who are themselves reviled and feared) sweeps across the malls and high schools of suburbia, yet black students still sit together, apart, in the cafeteria. Where can we turn to find the vision that will guide us through these strange and difficult times? Michael Eric Dyson helps us find the answer in our recent past, by resurrecting the true Martin Luther King, Jr.

A private citizen who transformed the world around him, King was arguably the greatest American who ever lived. Yet, as Dyson so poignantly reveals, Martin Luther King, Jr. has disappeared in plain sight. Despite the federal holiday, the postage stamps, and the required reference in history textbooks, King's vitality and complexity have faded from view. Young people do not learn how radical he was, liberals forget that he despaired of whites even as he loved them, and contemporary black leaders tend to ignore the powerful forces that shaped him--the black church, language, and sexuality--thereby obscuring his relevance to black youth and hip-hop culture. Instead, King's legacy has become a battlefield on which various forces wage war--whether it is conservatives who appropriate his words to combat affirmative action, or the King family themselves, who want to control use of the great man's words for a fee.

Former welfare dad, Princeton Ph.D., and Baptist preacher, Michael Eric Dyson sets out to find the man who was assassinated when Dyson himself was a nine-year-old boy living in downtown Detroit. And in his quest to unravel the meaning of King, Dyson discovers that the very contradictions embodied in the slain leader's life make him a man for our times. He returns to us a man as radical in his view of social injustice as Malcolm X, who still won the support of the white establishment; a man dedicated to the common good, who gave in to his own appetites; a master of language and rhetoric, who "sampled" the words and ideas of others; a man who despised the unjust distribution of wealth and used its fruits to feed his own people. Dyson rescues from history a Martin Luther King, Jr. who matters today: a man who has as much in common with rap artist Tupac Shakur as he does with the Reverend Ralph Abernathy. Unafraid to confront King's personal life, determined to defend King from the sanitizing forces of historical amnesia, Michael Eric Dyson challenges us to embrace the man who said, prophetically, on the eve of his death, "I May Not Get There With You," and to make him our partner in our ongoing struggle to get to the Promised Land.

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Editorial Reviews

Dante Ramos

If Michael Eric Dyson had his way, Americans would put away the most famous speech Martin Luther King Jr. ever delivered and leave it there for 10 years. "I have a dream," King proclaimed in 1963, "my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Those words, interpreted then as a call to end discrimination against black Americans, have been more prominent lately in the campaign against affirmative action. And so the moratorium idea is convenient for Dyson's own political purposes. The Columbia professor and Baptist preacher supports race-conscious remedies to the hardships black people face, and in laying aside "I Have a Dream" he would deprive his foes of the best sound bite they've got.

Dyson is right about one thing: Few Americans these days know much more about King's thinking than what they remember of that speech. In Dyson's view, King has been transformed into a "safe Negro," a romantic dreamer who doesn't make white people uncomfortable. So in I May Not Get There With You, he sets out to describe a King far more radical than the one trotted out for mainstream consumption on the third Monday of every January. "We must rebel," he writes, "against the varieties of amnesia that compete to reduce King to an icon for the status quo or a puppet of civil and social order...King as he truly was is enough for us now, perhaps even too much -- a fact that drives us to sanitize his image with soapy tales of how he wanted us to like each other very much."

For most of his adult life, King did try to appeal to white people's consciences and to basic American ideals. That strategy worked brilliantly when he and his followers braved attack dogs, fire hoses and Southern sheriffs who were benighted to the point of caricature. But King's views changed in the mid-1960s, when he took his crusade against racism to Chicago. To hear Dyson tell it, the civil rights leader was bewildered by what he found: intense hostility among whites, demoralization among blacks and indifference all around to the "huge morality plays" like the ones he staged in the South.

Afterward, King showed much more reluctance to stake black people's future on white goodwill. Rather than demanding reforms in existing institutions, he talked about "restructuring the whole of society." By 1968, he was questioning whether black Americans could rightly celebrate the Bicentennial. He talked, at least privately, about the need for a democratic form of socialism. While his whole career reflected a desire for what Dyson calls "substantive, not just procedural, justice," that theme became more pronounced in the last three years of his life.

Painting a truer picture of that life takes more than just rereading the speeches, though, and Dyson feels obligated to address King's less honorable behavior. Critics have accused King of plagiarizing much of his academic writing, cheating on his wife and succumbing to sexism. Dyson concludes that King is guilty as charged; he thinks, though, that the man's achievements outweigh his sins.

That's a perfectly sensible judgment, but Dyson can't leave well enough alone. He tries to place King's plagiarism within a supposed black tradition of borrowing and expanding upon other people's ideas -- the same tradition, he suggests, that led to sampling on hip-hop records. He also hypothesizes that "King's plagiarism at school is perhaps a sad symptom of his response to the racial times in which he matured." Dyson tries to make a larger point out of King's infidelity as well, declaring that his "relationship with Coretta symbolizes the difficulty faced by black leaders who attempted to forge a healthy life with their loved ones while the government aimed its huge resources at destroying their families, a sure metaphor for how the state has often abandoned or abused the black family with cruel social policies." It's awfully presumptuous to speculate on what lay inside a long-dead person's heart. And it's intellectually sloppy to extrapolate a whole critique of society from it.

Unlike critics who bemoan the shift in King's tone from major key to minor, Dyson wants to revive and extend the work of the civil rights leader's later years. Yet he blurs the difference between his own views and what King might have thought if he were still alive now. When Dyson urges the black church to work for class solidarity, stronger labor unions and other goals familiar to readers of the Nation, he describes it all as what "King might say." When Dyson disagrees with King's opinions -- e.g., King "took too readily to the language of pathology to describe black ghetto families" -- he dismisses those opinions as "serious mistakes." That's too bad. Dyson's passion is evident, his writing is powerful and he's right to fret about people who use King to suit their own purposes. If only the writer could practice what he preaches.
Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Reduced to sound bites and videoclips, Martin Luther King's image has become one of a starry-eyed dreamer and conformist, contends Dyson (Making Malcolm, etc.) in this attempt to reclaim the man he views as heroic and flawed from biographers, conservatives and cultural pundits who, Dyson maintains, have molded King's myth to fit their own political agendas. Readers looking for a linear, biographical text will not find it here. Rather, this is a bracing, at times willfully subjective, political and cultural analysis in which Dyson's signature style is just as surprising and revolutionary as what he presents as King's true message. As usual, this Baptist minister employs poetic, sometimes acrobatic gospel rhetoric, with multiple references to black youth music. One shock to the system is his point-by-point comparison of the similarities between King's and slain rapper Tupac (2pac) Shakur's philosophies. In addition to going on the offensive against the deliberate editing, misquoting and misinterpretations of King's speeches, Dyson tackles such difficult issues as the exclusion of women activists from civil rights organizing. He also deals adeptly with King's adulterous liaisons, his disillusionment with whites, the accusations of plagiarism against him and the troubles in King's marriage. His attempt to resurrect King as an evolutionary and revolutionary thinker who was not "down" with the status quo brings home that his stance on economic equity and the Vietnam War intensified the FBI surveillance that Dyson believed led to his death. In the end, Dyson successfully proves how vital King's true political views and personality are to struggling and frustrated black youth today. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Prolific black intellectual Dyson (African American studies, Columbia) offers a provocative interpretation of King's life, work, and legacy. Dyson tries to restore King's radicalism by focusing on his ideas from 1965 to 1968, painting him as a leader who called for fundamental changes in American capitalism. While trying to understand King's flaws, especially his infidelity, plagiarism, and patriarchal views of women, Dyson nonetheless concludes with a ringing endorsement of King's stature as "the greatest American in our history." The work is over the top in some instances (the suggestion that King and Tupac Shakur had much in common, for example), and it could be considerably shorter. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating study that should be in all but the smallest libraries.--Anthony O. Edmonds, Ball State Univ., Muncie, IN Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Jake Lamar
Michael Eric Dyson's I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr. is not simply an important book—it is a necessary one...Mr. Dyson has a questing intelligence, and there's a quiet urgency to his writing...a bold and challenging book on King, an indespensable contribution to American social criticism.
The New York Observer
Robert S. Boynton
Although there is little new material here, Dyson's achievement is to have recovered the discomfortingly radical core of King's message and reminded us why J. Edgar Hoover called him ''the most dangerous Negro in America.'' It is sometimes forgotten that many of the liberal admirers so fond of King when he was the messenger of nonviolent integration (''the poster boy for Safe Negro Leadership,'' in Dyson's words) grew disenchanted with him when he espoused more radical ideas in his later years.
The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher
Robert Boynton The New York Times Dyson gives us a thoroughly contemporary King, an enigmatic hero whose flaws and failings make him more, not less, relevant to our times.

Jake Lamar The New York Observer Not simply an important book — it is a necessary one. In prose that is always sharp and engaging, Dyson uses King's life and legacy to take on everything from contemporary conservatism to hip-hop culture...An indispensable contribution to American social criticism.

Paul Rosenberg The Denver Post Masterfully, Dyson...seamlessly combines a passionate exploration of King's battles, values and ideas with a highly nuanced picture of the contexts he struggled in and transformed, then draws parallels and contrasts to our world today. Like King himself, the result speaks to everyone, from ivory tower to hip-hop streets, challenging all of us to move beyond our present limitations.

Michael Fletcher The Washington Post Such is the genius of Dyson. He...flows freely from the profound to the profane, from popular culture to classical literature...Dyson's latest book should only enhance his reputation...The book resurrects a King who bears little resemblance to the sainted — some say homogenized — integrationist fixed in the national consciousness.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684867762
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/2000
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.51 (w) x 9.52 (h) x 1.22 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Eric Dyson is an ordained Baptist minister and Ida B. Wells Barnett University Professor at DePaul University. He is the author of Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X, Between God and Gangsta Rap, and Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line. He lives with his family in Chicago.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

"You Don't Need to Go Out Saying Martin Luther King, Jr. Is a Saint:" The American Hero

I was sitting on the living room floor watching television. I can't remember what was on the tube, but whatever it was got interrupted by a news bulletin.

"Martin Luther King, Jr., has just been shot in Memphis, Tennessee," the newsman announced. His speaking was usually a lesson in good cadence and inflection. Now his voice dragged in somber monotone.

Behind me, sitting in his favorite chair, my father could barely manage a hushed but hurtful "humh." It was the sort of wordless expression that gathered into its dismal tone the horror and disbelief that black folk who loved King would surely feel when they learned that he had been mercilessly ambushed. King's mellifluous baritone had been silenced by a piece of metal that traveled with ungodly speed and accuracy to explode its message of death inside his neck.

After the newsman reported that King was seriously wounded and had been shot on a motel balcony (immediately an unholy shrine to the senseless murder of so many dreams and hopes), the television gave us an audience with King at a speech he had delivered the night before.

"We've got some difficult days ahead," King says as his eyes peer intensely into the audience. "But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop."

King's audience erupts in cheers and verbal support. To my nine-year-old Sunday school-trained mind, his reference to the promised land was familiar, but I didn't ever remember it evoking that kind of response in church. Still, I could tell that something magical was happening between King and his hearers. The camera caught King at a side angle, his eyes blinking intently, his head shifting from left to right, and his mouth opened wide as his words spill forth in eloquent abandon.

"And I don't mind," he starts before the applause has completely subsided. "Like anybody, I'd like to live a long life," King yearns. "But long-ge-ve-ty has its place."

King stretched out the word, holding onto and savoring its ideal even as he perhaps felt his life slipping away. I began to get goose bumps. Did he know he was going to get killed? If he did know, did he have a special relationship with God? Does that kind of relationship mean that you know when you're going to die? I got a bit frightened, but I was riveted by King's words all the same.

"But I'm not concerned about that now," King insists. "I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain." The audience senses King's climax, and they continue to perforate his speech with shouts of "Yes, sir!" "Oh yes!" "Go 'head," "Yes, doctor!"

"And I've looked over," King continues as the preachers behind him beg him to "talk to me!" "And I've s-e-e-e-e-n the promised land." King's intensity is imploding, his jaws extending to full range, his eyes almost teary as he gently frowns to concentrate his energy. "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." The congregation is collapsing in ecstatic verbal release around his every word, measured and articulated with stirring economy.

"And I'm happy tonight," King reassures his audience, perhaps worried that the weight of his possible death, his inevitable death, will push him into the ground. He stops to give them a boost as he seeks to boost himself. "I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man," he promises his flock. "'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.'" He begins the hymn he had quoted so often, turning suddenly on his heels, as much out of emotional fullness as out of a sense of dramatic ending.

The audience on television, and in my heart, exploded in thunderous applause. It was a life-shaping introduction to an ebony seer whose words fairly brimmed with the pathos and poetry of black life. After showing what turned out to be King's last speech, the television station resumed its regular programming. But in my own mind, I would never be able to switch back to the same channel, to pick up with the same program. I knew instantly that I was forever and unalterably changed. King's rhetoric electrified me, stood the hair on my arms at attention as he trumpeted a clarion call for freedom. Then, in what seemed a matter of moments, the newsman again broke faith with the printed program to announce the final tragedy.

"Martin Luther King, Jr., has been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, at thirty-nine years old."

Before that April night that changed my life, I had never heard King's name, had never heard of Memphis. But in the split second it took for King to enter my consciousness, he quickly dominated my thoughts. As an inner-city black boy, I had already survived the riot that blazed Detroit's ghettoes and killed forty-three people during the previous summer. I saw brothers and sisters loot neighborhood stores, hauling away televisions, stereos, and whatever else they could carry off before dusk fell and before the city-wide curfew was enforced. But even that seismic event, as riveting and as local as it was, failed to capture my attention the way King's death did. The bullet that shattered King's jaw ended his life; its shrapnel lodged deep in my psyche and burned me awake to race in America. This book is the most recent symbol of my awakening and the product of my struggle to interpret King's life and meaning in a new way.

For millions of others, King's death was undeniably a sad benchmark of racial desolation. His assassination sparked a profound period of national soul searching. We reluctantly revive that sort of introspection when catastrophes strike or official commissions beckon us to get things right. More recently, King's image is conjured to settle disputes on either side of a racial or political divide. King's words are also referenced to prove one's authenticity as a champion of truth and justice. It seems to matter little that few people actually read what King wrote or spoke. What counts is that one can marshal enough of King's sentences in isolation from their original contexts to justify one's beliefs or perspectives. Thus King becomes a convenient icon shaped in our own distorted political images. He is fashioned to deflect our fears and fulfill our fantasies. King has been made into a metaphor of our hunger for heroes who cheer us up more than they challenge or change us.

Using King in this way harms our nation's racial memory. Indeed, it feeds the national amnesia on which we desperately depend to deny the troubles we face, troubles that grow from our unwillingness to tell the truth about where we have come from and where we are headed. If we can employ King's words to whitewash our blood-stained racial history — use him to make it seem that racial progress, though painful, was natural, even unavoidable — then we can defeat efforts to extend King's work. We can even make his authentic heirs appear alien to King's moral vision. This is the perverse genius of making King the patron saint of the movement to destroy affirmative action. In these circles, King is portrayed as a color-blind loyalist at all costs. Perhaps the most tragic price paid for viewing King in this manner is that racial justice is trumped under the baleful banner of "true equality." Of course, what King understood as a culture blind to color is a universe away from contemporary refusals to take race into account in creating a just society. Reducing King's brilliantly disturbing rhetoric to sound bites lets us off the hook. It even causes us to forget his challenging ideas.

I May Not Get There With You is a work of biocriticism — a critical investigation of King's career and cultural impact through the analytical prism of biographical details and life episodes. It attempts to rescue King's memory from the image of romantic dreamer that obscures his embrace of challenging ideas. I try to extract King's flesh-and-blood achievements, and failures, from sanitizing hero worship. Ironically, King's friends sometimes shortchange his challenging legacy by forgetting that he made America better by disagreeing with it when it was wrong. That meant that he was sometimes seen as a threat to American values and perceived in some quarters as dangerous. King's love for America should never be questioned. Contrary to right-wing reports, King was a patriot's patriot. He loved his country so much that he was willing to sacrifice his life for his countrymen. Thanks to his religious beliefs, King refused to idolize the state. He shared a disdain for blind nationalism with the biblical prophets he strongly admired. And despite the charge that he subverted the social order, King was a tireless advocate of democracy. In fact, he was so devoted to democracy that he spent his life making sure that its fruits could be shared by those who had worked the hardest to nurture its growth.

King was at his best when he was willing to reshape the wisdom of many of his racial and national parents. He ingeniously harnessed their ideas to his views to advocate sweeping social change. He believed that his earlier views on race failed to change America fundamentally. He once believed that appeals to conscience would destroy racism. He later concluded that most Americans were unconscious racists. King confessed that he had underestimated how deeply entrenched racism was in America. Now America had to be forced to confront its painful racial legacy. If blacks could no longer depend on white goodwill to create social change, they had to provoke social change through bigger efforts at nonviolent direct action. This meant that blacks and their allies had to seize political power. They also had to try to restructure American society, solving the riddles of poverty and economic inequality.

This is not the image of King that is celebrated during annual holiday observances. Many of King's admirers are uncomfortable with a focus of his mature beliefs. They seek to deflect unfair attacks on King's legacy by shrouding him in the cloth of superhuman heroism. In truth, it is little more than romantic tissue. King was undeniably a great American hero, but he did not become great by denying his mortality. In fact, he eventually embraced his humanity with remarkable abandon. King concluded that his life was not his own. He knew early in his career that he would probably be sacrificed for the sake of both black and white America. This awareness released him into a powerful and sometimes perilous psychological freedom — the sort of freedom that makes those who haven't faced death for their beliefs extremely nervous. At times, King was personally reckless, even dangerously so. We do not have to make him a saint to appreciate his greatness. Neither should we deny his imperfections as we struggle to remember and reactivate his legacy.

King's image has often suffered a sad fate. His strengths have been needlessly exaggerated, his weaknesses wildly overplayed. King's true legacy has been lost to cultural amnesia. As a nation, we have emphasized King's aspiration to save America through inspiring words and sacrificial deeds. Time and again we replay the powerful image of King standing on a national stage in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial mouthing perhaps the most famous four words ever uttered by a black American: "I have a dream." For most Americans, those words capture King's unique genius. They express his immortal longing for freedom, a longing that is familiar to every person who dares to imagine a future beyond unjust laws and unfair customs. The edifying universality of these four words — who hasn't dreamed, and who cannot identify with people whose dreams of a better world are punished with violence? — helps to explain their durability.

But these words survive, too, because they comfort folk who would rather entertain the dreams of unfree people than confront their rage and despair. That is why the ironic cycle of King's fame must be exposed. At first, he was viewed in many quarters of white America as a trouble-making, glory-seeking, self-promoting preacher whose racial opportunism was a plague on black-white relations. The logic ran that blacks and whites had worked out their differences to each other's satisfaction. The last thing they needed was for some Yankee-educated black preacher with highfalutin' words to threaten the segregated social contract of the South. One version or another of this story made fair book on King in even the most enlightened quarters of white Southern society. With the sudden and sharp rise of black militancy, King's challenging beliefs were transmuted into terms that white America fully exploited. With the emergence of Stokely Carmichael and especially Malcolm X, King was seen as the humble, nonviolent messenger of integration. His conciliatory views were contrasted to the supposed racial demagoguery and violence of black separatists. When King was suddenly crowned the Negro of choice within the white press, some blacks became suspicious of his authentic connection to the needs and interests of ordinary black folk. Two of the three major news magazines — Time and Newsweek — featured increasingly positive stories on King. Time even named King "Man of the Year" in 1964. King was made the poster boy for Safe Negro Leadership. His methods of social protest were embraced by millions of whites as the best route to racial redemption. By embracing King, many whites believed the threat of black insurrection could be contained, perhaps even shrewdly diverted.

To the chagrin of white leadership and the white press, King stepped out of character — at least the one they had written him into. He began to identify more strongly with the masses of black (and eventually, white and Latino) poor who had been invisible even within elite black circles. Moreover, King became increasingly anti-imperialist and chided the American government for its involvement in the Vietnam War. King's reproval bitterly stung civil rights stalwart Lyndon Baines Johnson. In King's mind, race, poverty, and war were intimately related. When King contended that all human life was tied together in a "single garment of destiny," he was lauded by liberal whites and integration-minded blacks. When he insisted that racism, economic inequality, and militarism were the "triplets of social misery," he was attacked for oversimplifying complex social issues. King paid dearly for his inevitable betrayal of Southern white interests, capitalist ideology, and black bourgeois beliefs. Financial support for his civil rights organization dwindled. Moral support for his war on economic inequality waned. And his antiwar protests caused him to be denounced by other black leaders. In 1967, for the first time in a decade, King's name was left off the Gallup Poll list of the ten most admired Americans.


This is not the King we choose to remember. The King we prefer is easily absorbed into fast-food ads for his birthday celebration. Or he is touted, even by political leaders who opposed him when he lived, as the moral guardian of racial harmony. In truth, political conservatives have more ingeniously than their liberal counterparts appropriated King's image, identity, and ideology. While such moves cause King's liberal admirers to cringe, they rarely enter the war of interpretation over King's legacy with the same gusto as their conservative opponents. One reason is that the times have turned against the sort of liberal ideology that they espouse, an ideology that has been brilliantly tagged by right-wing interests as un-American. Another reason that liberals fail to revive King's full legacy is that it represents a serious critique of many liberal racial remedies and goals. When King changed his mind about race and class, he both enraged conservatives and alienated liberals. While conservatives have zealously consumed King's earlier vision of race, even if to twist it perversely in a greatly changed racial era, liberals have refrained from appropriating King's rhetoric as aggressively. It is one thing to loathe taking King's words out of context to justify narrow interests. It is another thing altogether to understand the need to apply King's words skillfully, especially his more challenging words, to our current situation. Conservatives have retailed King's words. Liberals and progressives must retell his story. But we must make sure, in the interest of truth, to include the parts of King's vision that disturb us.

Why should we remember King's challenging legacy? Because Martin Luther King, Jr., is, arguably, the greatest American ever produced on our native soil. Figures like Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson seized the national imagination while holding public office. By contrast, King helped to redefine our country's destiny as a private citizen in a remarkable career that lasted a mere thirteen years. As a religious activist and social prophet, King challenged our nation's moral memory. He bid America to make good on promises of justice and freedom for all persons, promises that had been extended almost two centuries before. Part of King's enormous genius was the ability to force America to confront its conscience. He also brilliantly urged America to reclaim a heritage of democracy buried beneath cold documents and callous deeds. This book attempts to get at King's unique appeal to conflicting constituencies and seeks to explain the character of King's achievements, especially his later, more challenging thought and activity. While this book focuses on King, it attempts as well to place him in a broad network of social forces and movements that contributed to the black freedom struggle. King drew from a tradition of racial resistance that featured ordinary folk fighting for their freedom. My exploration of King's heroic stature by no means negates the achievements of folk who organized communities throughout the South without the aid of cameras or cash.

Martin Luther King, Jr., is the defining American of our national history. His social vision at its best captured the deepest desire for freedom that any other American has ever expressed. King's quest for true democracy is as great a pilgrimage as any American has undertaken. His hunger for real equality is as stirring a hope for national stability as any American has ever harbored. His thirst for racial redemption is as pure a faith in human morality as any American has dared to embrace. King's surrender of his life to the principles he cherished is as profound an investment in the worth of American ideals as any American ever made. King's career, with all of its flaws and failures, is simply the most faithful measure of American identity and national citizenship as we are likely to witness. As legendary jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis eloquently put it, "When I think of King, I think of a man who was the single person in the 20th century who did the most to advance the meaning and feeling of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. He is the single most important person in the fight that America has to be itself."

As we begin the twenty-first century, in prosperous times that have widened the gap between rich and poor, in the era Newsweek (June 7, 1999) declared to be the best times yet for black America — while 15 percent of African American men go to prison — we would do well to turn to the true Martin Luther King, Jr.

Copyright © 2000 by Michael Eric Dyson

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Table of Contents

Preface: "We as a People Will Get to the Promised Land": Martin and Us
Introduction: "You Don't Need to Go Out Saying Martin Luther King, Jr. Is a Saint": The American Hero 1
Pt. I Ideology
Ch. 1 "I Saw That Dream Turn Into a Nightmare": From Color-Blindness to Black Compensation 11
Ch. 2 "Most Americans Are Unconscious Racists": Beyond Liberalism 30
Ch. 3 "As I Ponder the Madness of Vietnam": The Outlines of a Militant Pacifism 51
Ch. 4 "America Must Move Toward a Democratic Socialism": A Progressive Social Bluprint 78
Ch. 5 "We Did Engage in a Black Power Move": An Integrationist Embraces Enlightened Black Nationalism 101
Pt. II Identity
Ch. 6 "I Had to Know God for Myself": The Shape of a Radical Faith 123
Ch. 7 "Somewhere I Read of the Freedom of Speech": Constructing a Unique Voice 137
Ch. 8 "There Is a Civil War Going on Within All of Us": Sexual Personae in the Revolution 155
Ch. 9 "I Have Walked Among the Desperate, Rejected, and Angry": Two Generations of the Young, Gifted, and Black 175
Ch. 10 "The Primary Obligation of the Woman Is That of Motherhood": The Pitfalls of Patriarchy 197
Pt. III Image
Ch. 11 "Be True to What You Said on Paper": A Critical Patriotism 225
Ch. 12 "I Won't Have Any Money to Leave Behind": The Ownership of a Great Man 249
Ch. 13 "If I Have to Go Through This to Give the People a Symbol": The Burden of Representation 282
Epilogue: "Lil' Nigger, Just Where You Been?": Metaphors and Movements 307
Notes 313
Bibliography 376
Acknowledgments 395
Index 397
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First Chapter

Chapter 1

"I Saw That Dream Turn Into a Nightmare": From Color-Blindness to Black Compensation

"I am a mother with six kids," says the beautiful ebony-skinned woman adorned in batik-print African dress and silver loop earrings. "And part of the time I don't even know where I'm going to get the next meal for my children."

All Martin Luther King, Jr., can do is shake his head and utter, "My, my."

King was on a 1968 swing through rural, poor parts of the black South, drumming up support for his Poor People's March on Washington later that year. He had stopped at a small white wood-frame church in Mississippi to press his case, and to listen to the woes of the poor. A painting of a white Jesus, nearly ubiquitous in black churches, observed their every move. Later King would absorb more tales of Mississippi's material misery.

"People just don't know, but it's really hard," a poor woman in church pleads. "Not only me, there's so many more that's in the same shape. I'm not the only one. It's just so many right around that don't have shoes, clothes, is naked and hungry. Part of the time, you have to fix your children pinto beans morning, dinner and supper. They don't know what it is to get a good meal." King is visibly moved.

"You all are really to be admired," he compassionately offers, "and I want you to know that you have my moral support. I'm going to be praying for you. I'm going to be coming back to see you and we are going to be demanding, when we go to Washington, that something be done and done immediately about these conditions."

King couldn't keep that promise; his life would be snuffed out a mere three weeks before his massive campaign reached its destination. But King hammered home the rationale behind his attempt to unite the desperately poor. He understood that the government owed something to the masses of black folk who had been left behind as America parceled out land and money to whites while exploiting black labor.

"At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land," King argues, "through an act of Congress our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor." Building a full head of steam, King rolls his rhetoric down the track of just compensation for blacks by contrasting even more sharply the unequal treatment of the races in education, agriculture, and subsidies.

"But not only did they give them land," King's indictment speeds on, "they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms."

King links white privilege and governmental support directly to black suffering, and thus underscores the hypocrisy of whites who have been helped demanding that blacks thrive through self-help.

"Not only that," King says in delivering the death blow to fallacies about the black unwillingness to work, "today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And this is what we are faced with, and this is the reality."

With one final fell swoop, King reinforces his identification with the destitute, reiterates his belief that the government has failed in its fiduciary obligations to blacks, and subverts the stereotype of blacks shiftlessly waiting around for government cash by insisting that blacks deserve what is coming to them.

"Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check."


This is not the King whom conservatives have used to undermine progressive politics and black interests. Indeed, conservatives must be applauded for their perverse ingenuity in coopting King's legacy and the rhetoric of the civil rights movement. Unlike the radical right, whose racist motivations are hardly obscured by painfully infrequent references to racial equality, contemporary conservatives often speak of race in moral terms gleaned from the black freedom struggle. Thus, while the radical right is open about its disdain for social upheaval in the sixties, many conservatives pretend to embrace a revolution they in fact bitterly opposed. This is especially troubling because of the moral assault by conservatives on civil rights activists who believe that affirmative action, for instance, is part of the ongoing attack on discrimination. These same conservatives rarely target the real enemies of racial equality: newfangled racists who drape their bigotry in scientific jargon or political demagoguery. Instead, they hurl stigma at civil rights veterans who risked great peril to destroy a racist virus found even in the diseased body of ultraconservatism. Perhaps most insidious, conservatives rarely admit that whatever racial enlightenment they possess likely came as blacks and their allies opposed the conservative ideology of race. The price blacks paid for such opposition was abrupt dismissal and name calling: they were often dismissed as un-American, they were sometimes ridiculed as agents provocateurs of violence, and they were occasionally demonized as social pariahs on the body politic.

Worse still, when the civil rights revolution reached its zenith and accomplished some of its goals — including recasting the terms in which the nation discussed race — many conservatives recovered from the shock to their system of belief by going on the offensive. The sixties may have belonged to the liberals, but the subsequent decades have been whipped into line by a conservative backlash. After eroding the spirit of liberal racial reform, conservatives have breathed new life into the racial rhetoric they successfully forced the liberals to abandon. Now terms like "equal playing field," "racial justice," "equal opportunity," and, most ominous, "color-blind" drip from the lips of formerly stalwart segregationist politicians, conservative policy wonks, and intellectual hired guns for deep-pocketed right-wing think tanks. Crucial concepts are deviously turned inside out, leaving the impression of a cyclone turned in on itself. Affirmative action is rendered as reverse racism, while goals and timetables are remade, in sinister fashion, into "quotas." This achievement allows the conservatives to claim that they are opposed to the wrong-headed results of the civil rights movement, even as they claim to uphold its intent — racial equality. Hence, conservatives seize the spotlight and appear to be calm and reasonable about issues of race. In their shadows, liberals and leftists are often portrayed as unreasonable and dishonest figures who uproot the grand ideals of the civil rights movement from its moral ground.

At the heart of the conservative appropriation of King's vision is the argument that King was an advocate of a color-blind society. Hence, any policy or position that promotes color consciousness runs counter to King's philosophy. Moreover, affirmative action is viewed as a poisonous rejection of King's insistence that merit, not race, should determine how education and employment are distributed. The wellspring of such beliefs about King is a singular, golden phrase lifted from his "I Have a Dream" speech. "I have a dream," King eloquently yearned, "my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Of the hundreds of thousands of words that King spoke, few others have had more impact than these thirty-four, uttered when he was thirty-four years old, couched in his most famous oration. Tragically, King's American dream has been seized and distorted by a group of conservative citizens whose forebears and ideology have trampled King's legacy. If King's hope for radical social change is to survive, we must wrest his complex meaning from their harmful embrace. If we are to combat the conservative misappropriation of King's words, we must first understand just how important — and problematic — King's speech has been to American understandings of race for the past thirty years.


As a nine-year-old boy, I saved money from odd jobs and sent off for a 45-rpm record containing excerpts of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s greatest speeches. Since King had been dead for only a few weeks and since I'd first heard about him the evening he was murdered, his recorded speeches had a great impact on me. Hearing the passionate words that King delivered as much as a decade earlier didn't at all diminish their powerful hold on my youthful imagination. I listened to his speeches over and over until his words were scorched into my brain. All I'd have to do was hear the beginning of a King excerpt, and I could immediately conjure the speech and the tumultuous verbal support of his adoring audience. King was constantly interrupted by a sweetly bellowed stream of "all right," "tell the truth," "yes, sir," "un hunh," "go 'head," "preach," "hah hah," and "speak." Besides "I See the Promised Land" — King's searing last speech that interweaved premonition of his death and the promise of black deliverance — I was thrilled the most by "I Have a Dream." King's best-known refrain echoed the longest on my recording since the compiler must have believed that it was King's most important speech.

"I Have a Dream" continues to draw millions around the globe to its hopeful vision of racial harmony. It is easy to see that many Americans identify with King through that speech. Many can recall where they were when it was delivered. Still others recall how reading that speech helped to locate them on the map of racial conscience. In a recent survey of the fifty most anthologized essays in American culture over the last half-century, "I Have a Dream" made the top ten list. King's towering oration shines alongside the essays of Jonathan Swift, Thomas Jefferson, and E. B. White. And as it skillfully did for me thirty years ago, "I Have a Dream" brings black suffering to the surface and tells us how racial healing can be embraced.

Of course, hearing that speech as a boy thirty years ago and hearing it now as a man makes a world of difference. King's radical tones are clearer. His rebellious flourishes defiantly leap to the foreground. And his dismay at America for denying prosperity to millions of blacks is now more sharply focused. Today I read even his labored restraint as a gesture of profound protest. We have surrendered to romantic images of King at the Lincoln Memorial inspiring America to reach, as he reached with outstretched arms, for a better future. All the while we forget his poignant warning against gradual racial progress and his remarkable threat of revolution should our nation fail to keep its promises. Still, like all other great black orators, King understood the value of understating and implying difficult truths. He knew how to drape hard realities in soaring rhetoric that won the day because it struck the right balance of outrage and optimism. To be sure, we have been long on King's optimism while shortchanging his outrage.

In ways that King could never have imagined — indeed, in a fashion that might make him spin in his grave — "I Have a Dream" has been used to chip away at King's enduring social legacy. One phrase has been pinched from King's speech to justify assaults on civil rights in the name of color-blind policies. Moreover, we have frozen King in a timeless mood of optimism that later that very year he grew to question. That's because we have selectively listened to what King had to say to us that muggy afternoon. It is easier for us to embrace the day's warm memories than to confront the cold realities that led to the March on Washington in the first place. August 28, 1963, was a single moment in time that captured the suffering of centuries. It was an afternoon shaped as much by white brutality and black oppression as by uplifting rhetoric. We have chosen to forget how our nation achieved the racial progress we now enjoy.

In the light of the determined misuse of King's rhetoric, a modest proposal appears in order: a ten-year moratorium on listening to or reading "I Have a Dream." At first blush, such a proposal seems absurd and counterproductive. After all, King's words have convinced many Americans that racial justice should be aggressively pursued. The sad truth is, however, that our political climate has eroded the real point of King's beautiful words. We have been ambushed by bizarre and sophisticated distortions of King's true meaning. If we are to recover the authentic purposes of King's address, we must dig beneath his words into our own social and moral habits. Only then can the animating spirit behind his words be truly restored. If we have been as deeply marked by his words as we claim, we need not fear that by putting away his speech we are putting away his ideals. After all, his ideals will have penetrated the very fabric of our personal and public practice. If King's speech has failed to reshape our racial politics sufficiently, it might be a good idea to huddle and ask where we have gone wrong. In the long run, we will do more to preserve King's moral aims by focusing on what he had in mind and how he sought to achieve his goals. That doesn't mean that King's words are scripture or that we cannot differ with him about his beliefs or strategies. We might, however, lower the likelihood of King's words being crudely snatched out of context and used by forces that he strongly opposed.

The great consolation to giving up "I Have a Dream" is that we pay attention to King's other writings and orations. Out of sheer neglect, most of his other works have been cast aside as rhetorical stepchildren. After devoting a decade to King's other works, especially his trenchant later speeches, we will grasp the true scope of his social agenda. We will also understand how King constantly refined his view of the American dream. As things stand, "I Have a Dream" has been identified as King's definitive statement on race. To that degree it has become an enemy to his moral complexity. It alienates the social vision King expressed in his last four years. The overvaluing and misreading of "I Have a Dream" has skillfully silenced a huge dimension of King's prophetic ministry.

Before putting away King's address and before attending to his other speeches, it will be useful to acknowledge "I Have a Dream's" true greatness and read it through the lens of King's mature struggles. True enough, on August 28, 1963, King stood at the sunbathed peak of racial transformation and at the height of his magical oratorical powers. King summoned resources of hope that took wing on carefully chosen words. He turned the Lincoln Memorial into a Baptist sanctuary and preached an inspiring sermon. "I Have a Dream" is unquestionably one of the defining moments in American civic rhetoric. Its features remain remarkable: The eloquence and beauty of its metaphors. The awe-inspiring reach of its civic ideals. Its edifying call for spiritual and moral renewal. Its appeal to transracial social harmony. Its graceful embrace of militancy and moderation. Its soaring expectations of charity and justice. Its inviolable belief in the essential goodness of our countrymen. These themes and much more came out that day.

King's delivery was equally majestic. His lilting cadences stretched along a spiral of intermittent sonic crescendoes. His trumpet-like baritone measured the pulse of his audience's fervor. He evoked his congregation's spiritual longing in sounds as tangy as Southern barbecue. His rhythms were brilliantly varied, a mix of blues and gospel. King encompassed his people's dashed hopes in slow, simmering drawls. He energized their yearning for deliverance in sharp pops of verbal intensity. And his performance was body-wide. His hands stabbed the air to highlight his points. His eyes squinted, then widened — not at all like the reflexive tics demanded by black stereotype — to underscore his propulsive moods. King reached to the heavens on tiptoe as his speech climaxed. King's enthusiasm raced through his limbs and circled his trunk as he was literally lifted by the crowd's momentum. It was a remarkable reflection of the levitating effect of his rhetorical genius. All of this made that speech what it has surely become: the defining oration of our age, the characteristic statement of King's career, and the oratorical taboo against which no other speech by King seems to prosper.

As great as the speech is, we have too often dulled its challenge beneath our overhearing of King's immortal cadences. To be sure, it is almost impossible not to be moved by King's vocal charms and intellectual inspiration. His clarion call for freedom rings in our ears each time the speech is replayed. "I Have a Dream's" condensing brilliance remains intact. King packs centuries of pain and possibility into nineteen minutes and thus makes brevity a servant of justice. But the greatest achievements of the speech are overshadowed by our admiration of its other great parts. King intended that day not simply to detail a dream but to narrate a nightmare. While the phrases that expose racial horror are as beautiful as the phrases that clarify hope, they are obscure because they are not as frequently excerpted. The simpler remedy to banishing King's speech for a decade might appear to be the application of an equal-time proviso: whenever the "dream" sentences are broadcast, we must broadcast as well the lines that speak of hurt and disappointment. But that will never work, in part, because it has not yet worked. One explanation is that the American hunger for amnesia is too great. And where amnesia fails, nostalgia succeeds. Our nation is too often overwhelmed by the desire for a past where racial issues, though desperate, were at least clear. For many, that beats living, as we do today, in an age of racial progress where many boundaries have been blurred and issues are much muddier. The inclination in the past has been to seize on the positive, edifying portions of King's speech. The parts of the speech that address the terrifying and disheartening aspects of racism are suppressed. Plus, the cultural forces that seek to control King's image want to fix his image as a healer. They conveniently forget that King was seen by most whites as a troublemaker throughout his career. In that light, reciting the drearier sentences will never turn the trick.

Still, the metaphors King used to describe the nightmare are forceful. Despite the "momentous decree" of the Emancipation Proclamation, Negroes were not free. They were "still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation" even as they lived "on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity." After noting that blacks were "languishing in the corners of American society," King concluded that the Negro "finds himself an exile in his own land." King announced to his civic congregation that the purpose of the march was to "dramatize a shameful condition." And then he evoked an arresting, extended metaphor to capture the frustration that blacks confront. America, he suggested, had failed to live up to its fiduciary obligations to black citizens. With this metaphor, King surgically penetrated the national conscience and sutured black suffering to America's identity as the wealthiest nation on the globe. King claimed that the signers of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were indeed signing a promissory note for all Americans. In the case of blacks, America was in profound default. It had issued blacks a bad check that had "come back marked 'insufficient funds.'" But, King declared, black folk refused to believe that "there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation." The march, then, was a march to collect on the promises that had been made, to cash a check, King argued, "that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."

He was not finished yet. King chided those people who held that blacks should be satisfied with a gradual approach to social change, and he hammered away at such an idea by declaring "the fierce urgency of now," reminding America that the "sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent" would not pass until the coming of the "autumn of freedom and equality." King issued a warning that is still striking when it is shed of our suffocating distortions of his dream: "There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges."

The militancy of these words can easily be relieved if one points out that King rushed to caution black militants against mimicking the hatred of white bigots. Predictably, that passage is often cited to douse the fire of black dissidents. But King's humanitarian urges, glimpsed in his warning against distrusting all white people — a warning that most black folk didn't need to hear, and one that King issued, perhaps, as a gesture of reassurance to white allies — do not quench his revolutionary thirst for justice. Thus, in answer to the rhetorical question of when black civil rights devotees would be satisfied, King thundered a string of resolute "nevers": black folk would never be satisfied as long as police brutality, disenfranchisement, lodging discrimination, black ghettoization, and attacks on black self-esteem were routinely practiced. Indeed, black folk would never be satisfied, King shouted, quoting the biblical prophet Amos, "until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." These passages have been virtually erased from our collective memory of that speech.

If such passages from King's most famous oration have been underplayed, many of his other speeches and writings have been unjustly neglected. In King's first visit to Washington to speak before the Lincoln Memorial, in 1957, he argued for black enfranchisement in the form of the ballot. In that speech, "Give Us the Ballot — We Will Transform the South," King also delivered a stinging rebuke to the sort of moderate neoliberalism that is now in vogue among Democrats. Terming it a "quasi liberalism," King indicts a political philosophy "so bent on seeing all sides that it fails to become committed to either side." King deemed such liberalism of little use to freedom struggles because it "is so objectively analytical that it is not subjectively committed," and because it "is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm." In 1961, King addressed the AFL-CIO convention in Florida in a speech entitled, "If the Negro Wins, Labor Wins." Even then, King briefly outlined his dream while carefully linking it to social and economic justice. King claimed that the American dream is "a dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed" and "of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few."

In his commencement address to Lincoln University in 1961, entitled "The American Dream," King warned that the "price America must pay for the continued exploitation of the Negro and other minority groups is the price of its own destruction." King also chided the critics of poor black communities who failed to understand that black criminality is "environmental and not racial" since "poverty, disease, and ignorance breed crime whatever the racial group may be." King argued against white supremacy and black inferiority, asserting that if "we are to implement the American dream we must get rid of the notion once and for all that there are superior and inferior races." In 1965, after the bloody march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, King, in his speech "Our God Is Marching On!" encouraged his listeners to "march on poverty, until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may march on poverty, until no starved man walks the streets of our cities and towns in search of jobs that do not exist."

In 1967, King delivered a speech at New York's Riverside Church in opposition to the Vietnam War exactly a year before his assassination. In "A Time to Break Silence," he scorned American imperialism and claimed that the war was stealing precious resources from the domestic war on poverty and racism. King urged a "revolution of values," a favorite theme of his later years, which he believed would "soon cause us to question the fairness of many of our past and present policies." In his last presidential address for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), "Where Do We Go from Here?" King laid out a daring social vision, a bold departure from his earlier civil rights focus, that joined concern for economic inequality to race and culture. King begged his organization to be possessed of a "divine dissatisfaction" that would lead them to be upset until "the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice."

Two months before his death, King preached a sermon, "The Drum Major Instinct," at Ebenezer Baptist Church, which he copastored with his father, Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. In this remarkable homily, King, a full quarter-century before "whiteness studies" became popular in American academic circles, gave a brilliant analysis of the cultural meanings of white identities. King spoke of how he talked to his white jailers in Birmingham, and how their pride and psychic investment in their whiteness was a self-destructive measure, not least because they were "living on...the satisfaction of [their] skin being white," when in reality they were as bad off as many blacks. Speaking of them, King said he informed them that "[you think] you are somebody big because you are white," but in fact "you can't send your children to school." In King's last Sunday morning sermon, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," delivered at Washington, D.C.'s (Episcopal) National Cathedral four days before his death, King was highly critical of the conservative self-help "bootstraps" philosophy, which held that "if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself." King sadly but forcefully observed that "the roots of racism are very deep in our country, and there must be something positive and massive in order to get rid of all the effects of racism and the tragedies of racial injustice."

The night before he was murdered, King warned, in his famous "I See the Promised Land" speech in Memphis, that "if something isn't done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed." And in "A Christmas Sermon on Peace," broadcast on Christmas Eve 1967 on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as part of the Massey Lectures, King acknowledged "that not long after talking about" the dream in Washington, "I started seeing it turn into a nightmare." He spoke of the nightmarish conditions of Birmingham, where four girls were murdered in a church bombing a few weeks after his speech. He spoke of the punishing poverty that he observed in the nation's ghettoes as the antithesis of his dream, as were the race riots and the Vietnam War. King confessed that while "I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes," that "I still have a dream." King had stretched his dream by now to include the desire "that one day the idle industries of Appalachia will be revitalized, and the empty stomachs of Mississippi will be filled, and brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of prayer, but rather the first order of business on every legislative agenda." His act of dreaming in 1967 was a courageous act of social imagination and national hope, perhaps even more so than when he dreamed out loud in Washington in 1963.

These few speeches, among King's myriad orations, sermons, essays, articles, lectures, and books, amply prove that giving up "I Have a Dream" does not prevent us from exploring King's dream. These speeches place King's dream in the broader context of his spiritual and moral evolution over the last three years of his life. Set free from the ideological confines of his "I Have a Dream" speech, King's true ethical ambitions are free to breathe through the words he spoke and wrote as he made his way to the promised land. If we have to do without "I Have a Dream" for ten years, we will be forced to pore over his other words, finding in them resources for the love and social transformation that were dear to King. If we are forced to live without that speech for a decade, we may be forced to live it instead. In so doing, we can truly preserve King's hope for racial revolution by wrestling with his less popular but more concrete solutions for equality and justice.


Conservatives and liberals alike have feasted on King's hunger for a world beyond race, a world where color will be neither the final sign of human identity nor the basis for enjoying advantage or suffering liability. To be sure, King's life and work pointed to such a day when his dream might be fulfilled. But he was too sophisticated a racial realist, even as he dreamed in edifying technicolor in our nation's capital, to surrender a sobering skepticism about how soon that day might arrive. His religious faith worked against such naiveté since it held that evil can be conquered only by acknowledging its existence. King never trusted the world to harness the means to make itself into the utopia of which even his brilliant dream was a faint premonition. The problem with many of King's conservative interpreters is not simply that they have not been honest about how they have consciously or unintentionally hindered the realization of King's dream, but more brutally, that in the face of such hindrances, they have demanded that we act as if the dream has become real and has altered the racial landscape. As an ideal, the color-blind motif spurs us to develop a nation where race will make no difference. As a presumed achievement, color-blindness reinforces the very racial misery it is meant to replace. Unfortunately, conservatives have not often possessed King's discerning faith or his ability to distinguish ideals from the historical conditions that make their realization possible. Most important, many conservatives lack the sense of poetic license that filled King's rhetoric. Instead they flatten his spiritual vision beneath the dead weight of uninspired literalism.

For example, William Bradford Reynolds, who served as assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Department of Justice under Reagan for eight years, attacked affirmative action as a cruel departure from King's uplifting vision of color-blindness. Reynolds contended that "the initial affirmative action message of racial unification — so eloquently delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech — was effectively drowned out by the all too persistent drumbeat of racial polarization that accompanied the affirmative action preferences of the 1970s into the 1980s." Reynolds continued, writing that what had "started as a journey to reach the idea of color blindness" had been sidetracked by infighting among competing racial or ethnic groups. While excesses and mistakes of the sort that Reynolds outlined surely occur, they do not express the fundamental aims of affirmative action: the correction of past and present discrimination and the granting of equal opportunity to historically excluded minorities. Minorities who possessed merit in the past were unjustly treated. Merit, then, wasn't the crucial criterion that determined their participation or exclusion; race or gender was decisive. To pretend otherwise, and to discount race or gender now in combating patterns of racial or gender exclusion, violates common sense and impedes the sort of justice for which King fought. King argued that it "is impossible to create a formula for the future which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years." King went on to question how the Negro "could be absorbed into the mainstream of American life if we do not do something special for him now, in order to balance the equation and equip him now to compete on a just and equal basis."

In this light, it makes sense to conceive of merit as a dependent good. It functions according to its immediate environment of comparison. What is meritorious in one context — say, an ability to play violin in a high school symphony or to recite Shakespeare in a theater company — is irrelevant in the next — for instance, a soccer match, where neither skill is particularly useful. Besides, even in the same sort of environment, say a university setting, the same skills may be unequally prized at different schools. For instance, one university may need to fill a first-chair violin slot, where another is overrun with them. At another school, soccer is the sport of choice, offering scholarships to skilled players, while other schools don't field soccer teams. The problem with having used race so long as the sole criterion for participation in schools or jobs is that race wiped out any consideration of merit. Not to take that historical feature into account is not only to deny history, but to corrupt the potential for achieving justice. In fact, race became a kind of merit itself; put another way, if race functioned as a demerit, corrective justice dictates that for a time it serve as a merit. It was King who wrote that "the nation must not only radically readjust its attitude toward the Negro in the compelling present, but must incorporate in its planning some compensatory consideration for the handicaps he has inherited from the past."

Another conservative writer, Richard Bernstein, eloquently suggests that King and the civil rights movement would be opposed to contemporary multiculturalism and affirmative action, its social complement. Bernstein contends that the "obsession with the themes of cultural domination and expression justifies one of the most important departures from the principal and essential goal of the civil rights movement: equality of opportunity." He argues that multiculturalism, by contrast, "insists on equality of results." He maintains that King's "dream of a day when my four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" crystallizes in "one sentence the essential ideal of liberalism." Multiculturalism, however, reaches a directly opposite conclusion: "'Judge me by the color of my skin for therein lies my identity and my place in the world.'" And repentant conservative Michael Lind writes that King "publicly opposed racial preferences." But King's words contradict Bernstein and Lind. King said that whenever the "issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for Negroes is raised," many of our friends "recoil in horror." As King stated, the "Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more." King goes on to write that the "relevant question" is not what blacks want, but how "can we make freedom real and substantial for our colored citizens? What just course will ensure the greatest speed and completeness? And how do we combat opposition and overcome obstacles arising from the defaults of the past?" King advocated a strong multicultural approach that Bernstein claims he would have rejected. Further, King seems to have sided squarely with at least some version of multicultural emphasis on substantive, not just procedural, justice. As he wrote, the "Negro today is not struggling for some abstract, vague rights, but for concrete and prompt improvement in his way of life." King rejected the simplistic and ill-advised distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of results. "The struggle for rights is, at bottom, a struggle for opportunities," King wrote. But he warned that "with equal opportunity must come the practical, realistic aid which will equip [the Negro] to seize it."

Even black conservatives have attempted to wedge between King and affirmative action in the name of color-blindness. Shelby Steele wins the symbolic sweepstakes hands down. His book, Content of Our Character, lifts King's phrase as both the title and the basis of his argument for color-blindness and for his vigorous attack on affirmative action. And Boston University economist Glenn Loury quotes King's content of character phrase too, pointing out that today King's dream is "cited mainly by conservatives." Loury writes that the "deep irony here is that, while in the liberal mind a vigorous defense of the color-blind ideal is regarded as an attack on blacks, it is becoming increasingly clear that weaning ourselves from dependence on affirmative action is the only way to secure lasting civic equality for the descendants of slaves."

Perhaps the most controversial, and bitterly contested, appropriation of King's vital legacy by a black conservative is that of California businessman, and University of California regent, Ward Connerly. Connerly has gained national attention for his successful efforts to end affirmative action in California with the infamous Proposition 209. More recently, besides his antiaffirmative action forays into Washington State and Florida, Connerly officially opened his National Campaign Against Affirmative Action on the King holiday in 1997. He defended this symbolic gesture of identification with King's legacy by declaring that his actions were consistent with the martyr's goals, though to King's traditional admirers it smelled more like treachery. Connerly insisted that his group did "no disrespect to [King] by acknowledging what he wanted this nation to become, and we're going to fight to get the nation back on the journey that Dr. King laid out." Connerly contends that preferential treatment of minorities in college admissions and in the workplace undermines King's dream of a color-blind society and repudiates everything he stood for. Proposition 209 is certainly Connerly's crowning achievement to date, a piece of legislation that Connerly views as the natural extension of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In fact, as printed on the ballot, Proposition 209 pilfered language directly from the 1964 bill, holding that "the state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting."

Never mind that when those words were written, racial presumptions and practices were radically different. One major presumption was that the 1964 bill was marshaled to combat the forces of white supremacy that pervaded Southern government and civil society in de jure segregation, and in Northern states where de facto segregation reigned. Hence, the practice of whites' excluding blacks was outlawed. Blacks received newly granted citizenship rights that were framed in the universal terms that allowed them to be applied to blacks in the first place. In short, blacks should have already been included, and would have been, except for the racial distortion of the Constitution's original intent of freedom for "all men." The irony is that in order to protect the legal and civil rights of black citizens — after all, no such protection was needed, or granted, for white citizens, save in the Constitution and Bill of Rights — such protection had to be cast in language that suggested universal application. But everyone associated with the struggle for black rights understood three facts about such universality. One, universality was not a given, since it had to be fought for. Two, it was not self-evident, since it had to be argued for. And three, universality was not inalienable, since it had to be reaffirmed time and again. In other words, there were at least a few competing versions of the universal floating around. The trick was to incorporate one version of universalism, black rights, into the legal arc of another version of universalism, white privilege, while preserving the necessary illusion of neutrality on which such rights theoretically depended. Hence a philosophical principle — what the philosopher Hegel might call a "concrete universal" — was transformed into a political strategy, allowing both whites and blacks to preserve their specific stake in a universal value: democracy. To miss this process — that is, to mistake politics for philosophical principles, or, in turn, to disregard their symbiotic relationship in shaping American democracy — is to distort fatally the improvisational, ramshackle, halt-and-leap fashion by which American politics achieves its conflicting goals.

The great mistake of Connerly and his conservative colleagues is to think that American ideals, and the politics that support them, possess a neutral, universal meaning when in fact they are made up of specific, interest-driven priorities and arguments. We are on firm footing as long as we remember that the function of ideals is to govern political and social life or, more realistically, to provide an intellectual leg to stand on to argue for our view of the world. But if we collapse ideals and practices, if we mistake our views as eternal and complete, and the next person's or group's as imperfect and partial, we are on dangerous ground. Conservatives of Connerly's ilk have rarely proved their ability to make such distinctions when it comes to race. They are often bewitched by a stultifying literalism that leads them to invest in the crude reversal of fortune scenario Connerly painted when he imagined that opponents to his tactics would "stand in the doorways like the segregationists did in the 60s."

Such a literal failure of imagination also led California's Republican party to a devious plan: to employ the image of King at — where else? — the 1963 March on Washington delivering his most noted line about content of character, in a 1996 political ad urging voters to adopt the ballot measure targeting affirmative action. When civil rights leaders protested and the King estate threatened a lawsuit, the party relented, but not before the damage had been done. King had been the victim of an open surreptitiousness; his words had been twisted against their maker to justify a political policy that was underwritten by a philosophy he certainly opposed. If they were literary postmodernists, the Republican party might have been written off as a humorous attempt to "kill the author" and make merrily macabre uses of his "text." Alas, they were thudding literalists, arguing that King really believed what they made him appear to affirm. Not even Connerly could stomach his comrades' display of ideological immaturity; he claimed he would have never used King in the ad, since the backlash was predictable. Still, he fired his own political consultant, Republican Arnold Steinberg, when he vigorously criticized the Republican strategy. "The use of King," Steinberg emphasized, "was juvenile at best and counterproductive at worst."

Connerly, however, remains staunch in his beliefs. "Every citizen should have an equal chance at the starting line of life's race," Connerly contends. "But there should not be a guaranteed outcome in the race. If you discriminate for someone, you discriminate against someone else." King, however, didn't buy the analogy or the logic by which it was supported. He wrote that on "the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic." He believed that "it is obvious that if a man is entered at the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner." To underscore his point, King told of a visit with Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru during which he and Nehru discussed "the difficult problem of the untouchables, a problem not unrelated to the American Negro dilemma." Although many Indians were still prejudiced against the untouchables, it had "become unpopular to exhibit this prejudice in any form." The reason for the changed climate was Gandhi's great influence as well as the prohibition against discriminating against the untouchables in India's constitution. Further, not only did the Indian government spend "millions of rupees annually developing housing and job opportunities in villages heavily inhabited by untouchables," but when "two applicants compete for entrance into a college or university, one of the applicants being an untouchable and the other of high caste, the school is required to accept the untouchable." King indicates that his colleague, college professor and King biographer Lawrence Reddick, asked Nehru if such a practice weren't discriminatory. "'Well it may be,' the Prime Minister answered. 'But this is our way of atoning for the centuries of injustices we have inflicted upon these people.'" King advocated that America "seek its own ways of atoning for the injustices she has inflicted upon her Negro citizens," as a "practical way to bring the Negro's standards up to a realistic level."

Martin Luther King, Jr., has wrongly been made the poster boy for opposition to affirmative action. His glittering moral authority has been liberally sprinkled on conservative assaults on civil rights communities and progressive black interests, all because of thirty-four words lifted out of the context of his commitment to complete equality and freedom for all Americans. Rarely has so much depended on so little. But to take full and just measure of King's views, we must read him, studying his words and his life as he evolved to engage the myriad forces that hinder the liberation of black and poor people. Unfortunately, King has been used to chide black and other humanitarian leaders who have sought, however imperfectly, to extend the views that he really held. If conservatives were to read and listen to King carefully, they would not only find little basis in King's writings to justify their assaults in his name, but they would be brought up short by his vision of racial compensation and racial reparation, a vision far more radical than most current views of affirmative action. King wrote in Why We Can't Wait that few "people consider the fact that, in addition to being enslaved for two centuries," that black folk were also robbed of wages for toil. It is worth quoting King at length:


No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law. Such measures would certainly be less expensive than any computation based on two centuries of unpaid wages and accumulated interest. I am proposing, therefore, that, just as we granted a GI Bill of Rights to war veterans, America launch a broad-based and gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial.


King ingeniously anticipated objections to programs of racial compensation on the grounds they discriminated against poor whites who were equally disadvantaged. He knew that conservatives would manipulate racial solidarity through an insincere display of new-found concern for poor whites that pitted their interests against those of blacks. King claimed that "millions of [the] white poor" would benefit from the bill. Although he believed that the "moral justification for special measures for Negroes is rooted in the robberies inherent in the institution of slavery," many poor whites, he argued, were "the derivative victims" of slavery. He conceded that poor whites are "chained by the weight of discrimination" even if its "badge of degradation does not mark them." King understood how many poor whites failed to understand the class dimensions of their exploitation by elite whites who appealed to vicious identity politics to obscure their actions. King held that discrimination was in ways "more evil for [poor whites], because it has confused so many by prejudice that they have supported their own oppressors." Hence, it was only just that a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, intent on "raising the Negro from backwardness," would also rescue "a large stratum of the forgotten white poor." For King, compensatory measures that were truly just — that is, took race into account while also considering class — had the best chance of bringing healing to our nation's minorities and to the white poor. It was never one or the other; both were a moral priority for King.

Martin Luther King, Jr., hoped for a color-blind society, but only as oppression and racism were destroyed. Then, when color suggested neither privilege nor punishment, human beings could enjoy the fruits of our common life. Until then, King realized that his hope was a distant but necessary dream. As he lamented, the "concept of supremacy is so imbedded in the white society that it will take many years for color to cease to be a judgmental factor." As we interpret King's hope for a color-blind world, we must keep this in mind.

One of the greatest pitfalls of idolizing the "I Have a Dream" speech and failing to grapple with King's views on compensation to blacks is that it obscures King's dramatic change of heart and mind about the roots of white racism. Liberals and leftists often extol King's virtues as a racial healer and use his views to chide more militant blacks. They have little to say, however, about King's later-life contention that most whites were unconscious racists. For many Americans King's admission betrays his fervent commitment to racial reconciliation. That would be an unfortunate conclusion since King never shrank from racial healing. He simply believed that such healing could occur only after we acknowledged just how pervasive racism is in our nation. King's remarkable statement cannot be dismissed as the ranting of a reverse racist. We must consider what led him to such a stunning reversal of opinion. Perhaps in the process we can shed light on our own contentious racial debates.

Copyright © 2000 by Michael Eric Dyson

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Introduction

Introduction

"You Don't Need to Go Out Saying Martin Luther King, Jr. Is a Saint:"The American Hero

I was sitting on the living room floor watching television. I can't remember what was on the tube, but whatever it was got interrupted by a news bulletin.

"Martin Luther King, Jr., has just been shot in Memphis, Tennessee," the newsman announced. His speaking was usually a lesson in good cadence and inflection. Now his voice dragged in somber monotone.

Behind me, sitting in his favorite chair, my father could barely manage a hushed but hurtful "humh." It was the sort of wordless expression that gathered into its dismal tone the horror and disbelief that black folk who loved King would surely feel when they learned that he had been mercilessly ambushed. King's mellifluous baritone had been silenced by a piece of metal that traveled with ungodly speed and accuracy to explode its message of death inside his neck.

After the newsman reported that King was seriously wounded and had been shot on a motel balcony (immediately an unholy shrine to the senseless murder of so many dreams and hopes), the television gave us an audience with King at a speech he had delivered the night before.

"We've got some difficult days ahead," King says as his eyes peer intensely into the audience. "But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop."

King's audience erupts in cheers and verbal support. To my nine-year-old Sunday school-trained mind, his reference to the promised land was familiar, but I didn't ever remember it evoking that kind of response in church. Still, I could tell that something magical was happening between King and his hearers. The camera caught King at a side angle, his eyes blinking intently, his head shifting from left to right, and his mouth opened wide as his words spill forth in eloquent abandon.

"And I don't mind," he starts before the applause has completely subsided. "Like anybody, I'd like to live a long life," King yearns. "But long-ge-ve-ty has its place."

King stretched out the word, holding onto and savoring its ideal even as he perhaps felt his life slipping away. I began to get goose bumps. Did he know he was going to get killed? If he did know, did he have a special relationship with God? Does that kind of relationship mean that you know when you're going to die? I got a bit frightened, but I was riveted by King's words all the same.

"But I'm not concerned about that now," King insists. "I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain." The audience senses King's climax, and they continue to perforate his speech with shouts of "Yes, sir!" "Oh yes!" "Go 'head," "Yes, doctor!"

"And I've looked over," King continues as the preachers behind him beg him to "talk to me!" "And I've s-e-e-e-e-n the promised land." King's intensity is imploding, his jaws extending to full range, his eyes almost teary as he gently frowns to concentrate his energy. "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." The congregation is collapsing in ecstatic verbal release around his every word, measured and articulated with stirring economy.

"And I'm happy tonight," King reassures his audience, perhaps worried that the weight of his possible death, his inevitable death, will push him into the ground. He stops to give them a boost as he seeks to boost himself. "I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man," he promises his flock. "'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.'" He begins the hymn he had quoted so often, turning suddenly on his heels, as much out of emotional fullness as out of a sense of dramatic ending.

The audience on television, and in my heart, exploded in thunderous applause. It was a life-shaping introduction to an ebony seer whose words fairly brimmed with the pathos and poetry of black life. After showing what turned out to be King's last speech, the television station resumed its regular programming. But in my own mind, I would never be able to switch back to the same channel, to pick up with the same program. I knew instantly that I was forever and unalterably changed. King's rhetoric electrified me, stood the hair on my arms at attention as he trumpeted a clarion call for freedom. Then, in what seemed a matter of moments, the newsman again broke faith with the printed program to announce the final tragedy.

"Martin Luther King, Jr., has been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, at thirty-nine years old."

Before that April night that changed my life, I had never heard King's name, had never heard of Memphis. But in the split second it took for King to enter my consciousness, he quickly dominated my thoughts. As an inner-city black boy, I had already survived the riot that blazed Detroit's ghettoes and killed forty-three people during the previous summer. I saw brothers and sisters loot neighborhood stores, hauling away televisions, stereos, and whatever else they could carry off before dusk fell and before the city-wide curfew was enforced. But even that seismic event, as riveting and as local as it was, failed to capture my attention the way King's death did. The bullet that shattered King's jaw ended his life; its shrapnel lodged deep in my psyche and burned me awake to race in America. This book is the most recent symbol of my awakening and the product of my struggle to interpret King's life and meaning in a new way.

For millions of others, King's death was undeniably a sad benchmark of racial desolation. His assassination sparked a profound period of national soul searching. We reluctantly revive that sort of introspection when catastrophes strike or official commissions beckon us to get things right. More recently, King's image is conjured to settle disputes on either side of a racial or political divide. King's words are also referenced to prove one's authenticity as a champion of truth and justice. It seems to matter little that few people actually read what King wrote or spoke. What counts is that one can marshal enough of King's sentences in isolation from their original contexts to justify one's beliefs or perspectives. Thus King becomes a convenient icon shaped in our own distorted political images. He is fashioned to deflect our fears and fulfill our fantasies. King has been made into a metaphor of our hunger for heroes who cheer us up more than they challenge or change us.

Using King in this way harms our nation's racial memory. Indeed, it feeds the national amnesia on which we desperately depend to deny the troubles we face, troubles that grow from our unwillingness to tell the truth about where we have come from and where we are headed. If we can employ King's words to whitewash our blood-stained racial history -- use him to make it seem that racial progress, though painful, was natural, even unavoidable -- then we can defeat efforts to extend King's work. We can even make his authentic heirs appear alien to King's moral vision. This is the perverse genius of making King the patron saint of the movement to destroy affirmative action. In these circles, King is portrayed as a color-blind loyalist at all costs. Perhaps the most tragic price paid for viewing King in this manner is that racial justice is trumped under the baleful banner of "true equality." Of course, what King understood as a culture blind to color is a universe away from contemporary refusals to take race into account in creating a just society. Reducing King's brilliantly disturbing rhetoric to sound bites lets us off the hook. It even causes us to forget his challenging ideas.

I May Not Get There With You is a work of biocriticism -- a critical investigation of King's career and cultural impact through the analytical prism of biographical details and life episodes. It attempts to rescue King's memory from the image of romantic dreamer that obscures his embrace of challenging ideas. I try to extract King's flesh-and-blood achievements, and failures, from sanitizing hero worship. Ironically, King's friends sometimes shortchange his challenging legacy by forgetting that he made America better by disagreeing with it when it was wrong. That meant that he was sometimes seen as a threat to American values and perceived in some quarters as dangerous. King's love for America should never be questioned. Contrary to right-wing reports, King was a patriot's patriot. He loved his country so much that he was willing to sacrifice his life for his countrymen. Thanks to his religious beliefs, King refused to idolize the state. He shared a disdain for blind nationalism with the biblical prophets he strongly admired. And despite the charge that he subverted the social order, King was a tireless advocate of democracy. In fact, he was so devoted to democracy that he spent his life making sure that its fruits could be shared by those who had worked the hardest to nurture its growth.

King was at his best when he was willing to reshape the wisdom of many of his racial and national parents. He ingeniously harnessed their ideas to his views to advocate sweeping social change. He believed that his earlier views on race failed to change America fundamentally. He once believed that appeals to conscience would destroy racism. He later concluded that most Americans were unconscious racists. King confessed that he had underestimated how deeply entrenched racism was in America. Now America had to be forced to confront its painful racial legacy. If blacks could no longer depend on white goodwill to create social change, they had to provoke social change through bigger efforts at nonviolent direct action. This meant that blacks and their allies had to seize political power. They also had to try to restructure American society, solving the riddles of poverty and economic inequality.

This is not the image of King that is celebrated during annual holiday observances. Many of King's admirers are uncomfortable with a focus of his mature beliefs. They seek to deflect unfair attacks on King's legacy by shrouding him in the cloth of superhuman heroism. In truth, it is little more than romantic tissue. King was undeniably a great American hero, but he did not become great by denying his mortality. In fact, he eventually embraced his humanity with remarkable abandon. King concluded that his life was not his own. He knew early in his career that he would probably be sacrificed for the sake of both black and white America. This awareness released him into a powerful and sometimes perilous psychological freedom -- the sort of freedom that makes those who haven't faced death for their beliefs extremely nervous. At times, King was personally reckless, even dangerously so. We do not have to make him a saint to appreciate his greatness. Neither should we deny his imperfections as we struggle to remember and reactivate his legacy.

King's image has often suffered a sad fate. His strengths have been needlessly exaggerated, his weaknesses wildly overplayed. King's true legacy has been lost to cultural amnesia. As a nation, we have emphasized King's aspiration to save America through inspiring words and sacrificial deeds. Time and again we replay the powerful image of King standing on a national stage in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial mouthing perhaps the most famous four words ever uttered by a black American: "I have a dream." For most Americans, those words capture King's unique genius. They express his immortal longing for freedom, a longing that is familiar to every person who dares to imagine a future beyond unjust laws and unfair customs. The edifying universality of these four words -- who hasn't dreamed, and who cannot identify with people whose dreams of a better world are punished with violence? -- helps to explain their durability.

But these words survive, too, because they comfort folk who would rather entertain the dreams of unfree people than confront their rage and despair. That is why the ironic cycle of King's fame must be exposed. At first, he was viewed in many quarters of white America as a trouble-making, glory-seeking, self-promoting preacher whose racial opportunism was a plague on black-white relations. The logic ran that blacks and whites had worked out their differences to each other's satisfaction. The last thing they needed was for some Yankee-educated black preacher with highfalutin' words to threaten the segregated social contract of the South. One version or another of this story made fair book on King in even the most enlightened quarters of white Southern society. With the sudden and sharp rise of black militancy, King's challenging beliefs were transmuted into terms that white America fully exploited. With the emergence of Stokely Carmichael and especially Malcolm X, King was seen as the humble, nonviolent messenger of integration. His conciliatory views were contrasted to the supposed racial demagoguery and violence of black separatists. When King was suddenly crowned the Negro of choice within the white press, some blacks became suspicious of his authentic connection to the needs and interests of ordinary black folk. Two of the three major news magazines -- Time and Newsweek -- featured increasingly positive stories on King. Time even named King "Man of the Year" in 1964. King was made the poster boy for Safe Negro Leadership. His methods of social protest were embraced by millions of whites as the best route to racial redemption. By embracing King, many whites believed the threat of black insurrection could be contained, perhaps even shrewdly diverted.

To the chagrin of white leadership and the white press, King stepped out of character -- at least the one they had written him into. He began to identify more strongly with the masses of black (and eventually, white and Latino) poor who had been invisible even within elite black circles. Moreover, King became increasingly anti-imperialist and chided the American government for its involvement in the Vietnam War. King's reproval bitterly stung civil rights stalwart Lyndon Baines Johnson. In King's mind, race, poverty, and war were intimately related. When King contended that all human life was tied together in a "single garment of destiny," he was lauded by liberal whites and integration-minded blacks. When he insisted that racism, economic inequality, and militarism were the "triplets of social misery," he was attacked for oversimplifying complex social issues. King paid dearly for his inevitable betrayal of Southern white interests, capitalist ideology, and black bourgeois beliefs. Financial support for his civil rights organization dwindled. Moral support for his war on economic inequality waned. And his antiwar protests caused him to be denounced by other black leaders. In 1967, for the first time in a decade, King's name was left off the Gallup Poll list of the ten most admired Americans.


This is not the King we choose to remember. The King we prefer is easily absorbed into fast-food ads for his birthday celebration. Or he is touted, even by political leaders who opposed him when he lived, as the moral guardian of racial harmony. In truth, political conservatives have more ingeniously than their liberal counterparts appropriated King's image, identity, and ideology. While such moves cause King's liberal admirers to cringe, they rarely enter the war of interpretation over King's legacy with the same gusto as their conservative opponents. One reason is that the times have turned against the sort of liberal ideology that they espouse, an ideology that has been brilliantly tagged by right-wing interests as un-American. Another reason that liberals fail to revive King's full legacy is that it represents a serious critique of many liberal racial remedies and goals. When King changed his mind about race and class, he both enraged conservatives and alienated liberals. While conservatives have zealously consumed King's earlier vision of race, even if to twist it perversely in a greatly changed racial era, liberals have refrained from appropriating King's rhetoric as aggressively. It is one thing to loathe taking King's words out of context to justify narrow interests. It is another thing altogether to understand the need to apply King's words skillfully, especially his more challenging words, to our current situation. Conservatives have retailed King's words. Liberals and progressives must retell his story. But we must make sure, in the interest of truth, to include the parts of King's vision that disturb us.

Why should we remember King's challenging legacy? Because Martin Luther King, Jr., is, arguably, the greatest American ever produced on our native soil. Figures like Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson seized the national imagination while holding public office. By contrast, King helped to redefine our country's destiny as a private citizen in a remarkable career that lasted a mere thirteen years. As a religious activist and social prophet, King challenged our nation's moral memory. He bid America to make good on promises of justice and freedom for all persons, promises that had been extended almost two centuries before. Part of King's enormous genius was the ability to force America to confront its conscience. He also brilliantly urged America to reclaim a heritage of democracy buried beneath cold documents and callous deeds. This book attempts to get at King's unique appeal to conflicting constituencies and seeks to explain the character of King's achievements, especially his later, more challenging thought and activity. While this book focuses on King, it attempts as well to place him in a broad network of social forces and movements that contributed to the black freedom struggle. King drew from a tradition of racial resistance that featured ordinary folk fighting for their freedom. My exploration of King's heroic stature by no means negates the achievements of folk who organized communities throughout the South without the aid of cameras or cash.

Martin Luther King, Jr., is the defining American of our national history. His social vision at its best captured the deepest desire for freedom that any other American has ever expressed. King's quest for true democracy is as great a pilgrimage as any American has undertaken. His hunger for real equality is as stirring a hope for national stability as any American has ever harbored. His thirst for racial redemption is as pure a faith in human morality as any American has dared to embrace. King's surrender of his life to the principles he cherished is as profound an investment in the worth of American ideals as any American ever made. King's career, with all of its flaws and failures, is simply the most faithful measure of American identity and national citizenship as we are likely to witness. As legendary jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis eloquently put it, "When I think of King, I think of a man who was the single person in the 20th century who did the most to advance the meaning and feeling of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. He is the single most important person in the fight that America has to be itself."

As we begin the twenty-first century, in prosperous times that have widened the gap between rich and poor, in the era Newsweek (June 7, 1999) declared to be the best times yet for black America -- while 15 percent of African American men go to prison -- we would do well to turn to the true Martin Luther King, Jr.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2000

    An interesting read but...........

    I enjoyed reading Professor Dyson's book but Dyson contradicts himself in several areas and comes across occasionally as a hypocrite. FOr example he claims that if Dr. King today would be alive he would support affirmative action (just like the author), yet he complains about conservatives using King's name and phrases for issues that Dyson claims King never would have endorsed.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2000

    Upon hearing a speech given by the author...

    I heard a very compelling speech given by this author on Pacifica radio's Democracy Now program. The speech required me to probe deeper and get this book. In Mr. Dyson's presentation he demands that Americans challenge our comfortable ideas of race, class and culture. I found myself yelling 'yes!!' and feeling shamed all within the hour. I eagerly await the delivery of this book so that I can read for myself what in fact this insightful, provocative speaker has written and researched. If I can learn a thing or two, great; if I can be 'moved' to teach a thing or two to somebody else, fantastic!!

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