King, Minus Sentimental Goo: A Bold, Dangerous Radical

I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr. , by Michael Eric Dyson. The Free Press, 404 pages, $25.

Is there any 20th-century American icon who has been more banalized, neutralized and homogenized by mythology than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? From the day he was martyred in 1968, the civil rights crusader has been enshrined as a romantic visionary: the healing, nonviolent, nonthreatening integrationist. Honored as a national holiday, King’s birthday gives Americans, black and white, conservative and liberal alike, the annual opportunity to appropriate his legacy and slather it with sentimental goo, to squeeze the complex ideas of a true revolutionary into four wistful words: “I Have a Dream.”

Forgotten is the man who in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”-written just four months before he delivered his “Dream” address on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial-said that the greatest threat to freedom for black people was not the Ku Klux Klanner but the hypocritical “white moderate.” The man who, in the year he died, said “most Americans are unconscious racists” has been neglected. The dangerous radical has been replaced by the image of the Safe Negro. As Jesse Jackson once so eloquently put it, King was not murdered for dreaming .

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. More reclamation than reinterpretation, it honors King by refusing to worship him. Mr. Dyson, a Baptist minister and professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago, examines King’s words, deeds and misdeeds with a scholarly scrupulousness. But this book is more a work of social criticism than a traditional biography. In prose that is always sharp and engaging, Mr. Dyson uses King’s life and legacy to take on everything from contemporary conservatism to hip-hop culture to the “national amnesia” that prevents Americans from confronting the past. Along the way, Mr. Dyson courageously explores King’s excruciating weaknesses: his plagiarism, sexism and compulsive adultery. Here, at long last, is King without tears.

The book’s title is taken from King’s final sermon, delivered the night before his assassination in Memphis, when he seemed to know very well that he was about to die: “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.” Mr. Dyson reminds us that King was, at that moment, a depressed and isolated figure: In 1967, for the first time in a decade, “King failed to make the Gallup Poll’s list of the 10 most popular Americans. His growing radicalism was spoiling the canonization that had begun in earnest in 1964, when he won the Nobel Peace Prize. In fact, when he was murdered, King was unpopular with white America and had lost his sure hold on huge segments of the black population as well.”

King’s white support started to slip in 1965 when he took his protest movement from the vilified, segregated South to the supposedly more enlightened North and found, in Chicago, “the most ‘hostile and hateful’ demonstration of white racism he had ever witnessed.” When he and his followers braved water cannons, police dogs and billy clubs in Selma and Birmingham, King was ardently embraced by Northern white liberals. “But when King began to say that racism was deeply rooted in our society,” Mr. Dyson writes, “and that only a structural change would remove it, he alienated key segments of the liberal establishment.”

Even King’s black allies in the civil rights movement turned against him when on April 4, 1967-exactly one year before his death-he became the most prominent American to attack the Government’s war on Vietnam. At the time, the vast majority of Americans, including blacks, supported the war. The media establishment, led by the pseudoliberal New York Times , trashed King for being so uppity as to criticize U.S. foreign policy. The black leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League said King had made “a serious tactical mistake.”

Their fears that King’s outspokenness would anger President Lyndon B. Johnson-a champion of civil rights legislation-were well founded; Johnson railed against “King, that goddamned nigger preacher.” In a grotesque ejaculation of racist sexual paranoia, Johnson told King “that his criticism of the war had the same effect on Johnson as if he had discovered that King had raped his daughter.”

Despite the attacks, King-“a man whose willingness to burn bridges in order to bring justice is nearly unparalleled in American history”-moved farther and farther to the left in his final months. Contrary to the claims of people like Jesse Helms and Ronald Reagan, King never endorsed Communism. “I didn’t get my inspiration from Karl Marx,” he said. “I got it from a man named Jesus.” Still, King was disgusted by bare-knuckled American capitalism. Privately, he summed up his philosophy as “democratic socialism.” Publicly, he called for a dramatic “redistribution of economic power.” In the spring of 1968, King was planning a Poor People’s Campaign in Washington: “Protesters would engage in massive civil disobedience, tying up traffic, staging sit-ins in Congress and in government buildings and shutting down business in the capital.” A bullet in the neck ended King’s life days before the campaign was to begin.

Mr. Dyson has a questing intelligence, and there’s a quiet urgency to his writing. He burrows into the mystery and meaning of King like a master sleuth trying to get to the bottom of a case. He coolly demolishes whites who practice “racial evasion,” who distort King’s views to justify their opposition to affirmative action, as well as a black colleague who says, “Fuck Martin Luther King … The nigga was the worst thing to happen to black people in the 20th century.” And his assessment of the current President is witheringly accurate: “When it benefits him, Clinton reaches out to blacks; when it hurts him, he withdraws the hand of racial charity. All the while he employs a racial cunning that belies his public persona as honorary homeboy.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Dyson turns bitter when discussing the King family’s attempts to control and commercially exploit King’s words and image. Mr. Dyson is particularly harsh on King’s widow, Coretta, and his son Dexter-a frequent media whipping boy. To be sure, the family’s efforts to “cash in” on the King legacy and their tactics in protecting their copyright privileges on the great man’s texts have often been reprehensible. King would probably not approve. But at a time when America’s age-old obsession with money is more fervent and widespread than ever before, the Kings are simply doing what their fellow citizens do with gloating pride: looking out for their own financial interests.

Sometimes I wonder: Would people have more respect for Mrs. King if she’d married a Greek billionaire? Would Dexter King be treated more kindly in the media if he used his good looks, savvy and famous name to start up a slick magazine that merged racial politics with celebrity culture (calling it Frederick , as in “Douglass”), married a skinny blonde who worked for Calvin Klein, took up flying and crashed his private plane in the waters off Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard? Would he be mourned as a lost American prince?

In any event, the King family could not prevent Michael Eric Dyson from writing a bold and challenging book on King, an indispensable contribution to American social criticism. King died trying to get America to let go of its illusions about itself. Now is the time for America to let go of its illusions about him.

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