(Photo: Chaz Neill/PictureGroup)
This article was originally published in April, 2008.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson is a social commentator with a spine. Bashing Black culture and trumpeting the positions that guarantee broad appeal might be the shortest path to popularity but, as Dyson sees it, such a strategy undermines the responsibility that thinkers and men of God have to tell the truth. Perhaps no contemporary intellectual is better poised to analyze and elucidate about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., than Dyson. An ordained Baptist minister, author of at least 15 books and a professor at Georgetown University, where he teaches English, theology, and African-American studies, Dyson has educated and expanded the dialogue on such diverse topics as racial justice, hip-hop culture and Hurricane Katrina. He has championed the cause of poor Black Americans, battling everybody from George W. Bush to Bill Cosby. In his work April 4, 1968, Dyson seeks to remind America about the “real” Martin Luther King Jr. He spoke to BET.com to talk about the King that most people forget.
BET.com: The only thing that anyone seems to remember about King is that he was a great “dreamer” and great speech-maker. I’m not so sure that America would be loving him so much if he had kept on living.
Dyson: [King] was at the low point of his popularity at the time of his death. When Martin Luther King Jr. met his end on that balcony in Memphis, he was indeed at the low point of his popularity for the first time in nearly a decade. He didn’t make the most admired list for the Gallup poll. Very few universities wanted to hear from him. No American publishers wanted to publish a book by him. And he was being questioned, even in African-American culture, for the relevancy of his non-violent approach. Dr. King was facing tremendous odds. His back was against the wall. His resources were drying up within his own organization. He was fighting with a prominent northern board member about whether or not he should speak out against the war in Vietnam and paid the price for it. So, he was facing opposition from within his organization and more broadly from the civil rights movement, and even more broadly from the mainstream American press as well as from public policymakers and politicians in America. He was quite on the outside and outskirts of popularity and acceptance in America. This notion that Dr. King was widely praised is one of nostalgia and of amnesia, and it should be combated.
Your book April 4, 1968 reminds America of a Martin King that it doesn’t like to focus on.
My book tries to combat some of the false beliefs about Martin Luther King Jr., and to narrate just where he was at the time of his death and the price he paid. We have used his death to either reinforce myths about him or to challenge him. When you celebrate the holiday, you celebrate the King of I Have a Dream. When you celebrate the death date, you celebrate the King that opposed Vietnam.
The title was well thought out.
Absolutely. Jan. 15, 1929 is Christmas; April 4, 1968 is Easter. It’s the death date. It’s the crucifixion. It’s the surrender of life. It’s the martyrdom. It’s the dying. It’s the being punished by America for telling the truth. It’s the resistance to the prophetic expression of empathy for Black poor people. It’s not simply a judgment, right now, on the memory of white Americans who have swept away the contradictions to embrace Martin Luther King Jr.
You’ve not only taken white folks to task for contradicting what King stood for.
Black people who assault poor Black people now have amnesia about Martin Luther King Jr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not attempting to undermine poor Black people but to identify with them. He didn’t go on TV to berate them or to beat them down. He went to the front line to support and encourage them. Martin Luther King would not have anything to do with contemporary efforts to publicly shame and embarrass poor Black people — challenge them, yes, but not to demonize and degrade them.
If King were alive today, how would he assess American society?
First of all, he would examine the undeniable success of American society and applaud it. He would say that we’ve made tremendous strides; he would acknowledge that. He would talk about Jesse Jackson running for the presidency twice, and now Barack Obama, and applaud that. He would look at the exponential increase in the Black middle class and celebrate that. He would talk about the fact that we’ve achieved Fortune 500 status as CEOs and say that’s great. He would also applaud the expansion of political representation in Black America. But he would also say, “Look, this sub-prime mortgage crisis is horrible; the widening gap between the have-gots and have-nots is awful. The Black poor have been devastated by both mainstream neglect and Black bourgeoisie assault.” He would speak about the way in which this country is still obsessed with war and this drum-major instinct to be supreme and to police and bully the world. He would speak out against the demonization of Arab brothers and sisters and speak against specific forms of anti-Semitism and viewpoints that are raised against poor and vulnerable people all over. Dr. King would also speak much more forthrightly about the need for women’s interests to be front and center in African-American culture and to identify with gay and lesbian people who have been dismissed and demonized. He would continue to create a ruckus and a stir by his progressive viewpoints, and they would by no means be the source of viewpoints that would garner him a national holiday.
I know you laud King for his bravery in speaking out about white supremacy and injustice, but wouldn’t Obama’s campaign [had been] over had he not distanced himself from the very outspoken Jeremiah Wright?
You’re doggone right, and I’m sure Jeremiah Wright understood that. That’s one thing as a presidential candidate. But as a prophet, you’ve got to stand up and tell the truth. Jeremiah Wright’s job is to be a prophet, not to be accepted by the dominant or mainstream culture, not to be popular. Prophets are often unpopular — even with the presidential candidates they may spawn, even with the presidential candidates who grew up in their churches. Barack Obama’s job and Jeremiah Wright’s job put them at loggerheads.
How do the masses of Black Americans view this incongruity?
Obviously, we respect and understand what Sen. Obama must do as a presidential candidate, but at the same time, it does not de-legitimate the job that a prophet must do — to speak forth about what he or she understands. Martin Luther King Jr. understood that. He spoke out against Lyndon Baines Johnson, even though Johnson had been critical in offering support for the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Johnson called him a “goddam n----r preacher.” He said, “What more does he want? We’ve given him the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.” Therefore he felt that Negroes should be grateful and not speak their minds. King proved just how brave and courageous he was to speak out against Johnson, regardless of having been supported by Lyndon Baines Johnson. That’s the kind of prophetic profile that any preacher will have to maintain if he or she wants to live up to standards that King set.
What is the main message that you would like folks to get out of your book?
There are three things. First, I talk about how King fought, faced and feared death. He brilliantly and ingeniously used death to oppose white supremacy, social injustice and economic inequality, and used it to stir up his troops.... I also use this book to talk about how far we are from the Promised Land. If you’re middle class, you’ve got some money and you’re upwardly mobile, you’re doing just fine. If you don’t, you’re in a hell of a shape, and you’re far, far from the Promised Land. You’re still stuck in the wilderness of racial malaise and economic inequality.
Finally, I wanted to talk about the leaders who have come in the aftermath of Dr. King. So I look at Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and now, of course, Barack Obama. Jesse Jackson is the most noted apostle of Dr. King and the most brilliant example of the genius of that tradition, historically and politically, and has carried forth for these 40 years since King’s death as the most powerful and capable leader on the scene. Al Sharpton has made a tremendous contribution in his own way. And, now, Barack Obama. I look at their various contributions, and then I end the book with an imaginary interview with Dr. King as he would comment upon contemporary society.