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.
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.
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.
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.
Read an Excerpt
"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