Robert S. Boynton


Review of Michael Eric Dyson’s “I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.”

The New York Times Book Review, January 23, 2000

Americans don't have much patience with complicated heroes. We like them
simple and unthreatening, preferably reducible to a single idea or expression.
There are few historical figures who illustrate this tendency better than the
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose entire career is often summarized in
the phrase "I have a dream."

But what exactly was that dream? It's sometimes hard to remember. In the 32
years since his assassination, King's patrimony has been claimed by every
ideological group imaginable. The civil rights establishment understandably sees
him as one of its own. But so do such Christian conservatives as Randall Terry
of Operation Rescue and Ralph Reed, who cite King's vision as the basis for
their own activism. King's famous plea that his children be judged not "by the
color of their skin but by the content of their character" has become the battle
cry for conservative advocates of colorblind policies. And in 1997, when
Californians opposed to affirmative action wanted a suitable image for
Proposition 209, they chose a picture of King at the 1963 March on Washington.

So malleable is King's message that his "dream" sometimes seems to stand for
everything and nothing. In "I May Not Get There With You," Michael Eric Dyson
argues that we have tarnished King's true legacy by translating it into a
cliche. We have sanitized his ideas to make them sound less radical, twisted his
identity so he appears more saintly and ceded control of his image to various
powers – from the federal government that made his birthday an official holiday
to the King family itself, which has aggressively and profitably marketed his
memory. Dyson castigates King's foes and fans alike. "In the last 30 years we
have trapped King in romantic images or frozen his legacy in worship," he
writes. "His strengths have been needlessly exaggerated, his weaknesses wildly

A Baptist minister and the Ida B. Wells Barnett university professor at
DePaul University, Dyson is a prolific cultural critic who mixes journalism and
scholarship (a hybrid he calls "biocriticism") to create a largely convincing
portrait of the "lost" King, emphasizing the years from 1965 to 1968, when he
focused on race, poverty and militarism, the "triplets of social misery."
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. Confronted with seemingly ineradicable white
racism and persistent black poverty in the North, King concluded that nothing
short of "radical moral surgery" was required to heal the country. "I am sorry
to have to say that the vast majority of white Americans are racists, either
consciously or unconsciously," he declared the year he died. He viewed the
Vietnam War as an extension of America's domestic racism and lost considerable
support by advocating various black nationalist and socialist ideas. His own
Southern Christian Leadership Conference put tremendous pressure on him to
moderate his views and, although he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, by 1968
his name had slipped off the Gallup poll's list of the 10 most admired

The book is at its best when Dyson provides close readings of the less
well-known sermons, drawing on King's unambiguously radical ideas to rescue him
from his conservative usurpers and undercut their sanitized portrait. Indeed,
Dyson proposes a 10-year moratorium on reading King's "I Have a Dream" speech so
that the rest of his ideas – like his defense of wide-ranging affirmative
action programs in "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," his last Sunday
morning sermon – might come to the fore. Dyson argues that the "Dream" speech
has become an unwitting enemy of King's genuine moral complexity. "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,"
he writes.

Dyson gives us a thoroughly contemporary King, an enigmatic hero whose flaws
and failings make him more, not less, relevant to our times. Still, his
painstaking analysis of King's promiscuity and plagiarism (Dyson describes
King's habit of "sampling" from other sources as "more Miles Davis than Milli
Vanilli") too often reads like a politically correct laundry list, and it
borders on the absurd when he suggests that in his flagrant sexual affairs King
exploded "in orgasm to keep his spirit from exploding." Similarly, when Dyson
equates King's sexism with that of the rapper Tupac Shakur, he diminishes King
for the sake of a glib pop culture comparison.

Although Dyson fulfills his promise to "provide a fresh interpretation of a
peculiarly American life," I kept hoping he might step back and question the
whole enterprise of icon rescue itself. It sometimes seems as if the culture
industry packages new heroes no less frequently than the fashion industry alters
hemlines or tie widths. Was the Malcolm X revival of only a few years ago – to
which Dyson's "Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X" contributed –
a genuine movement or merely a marketing opportunity? Will Dyson's reclaimed and
updated King really bolster young African-Americans or the political left? One
might actually read "I May Not Get There With You" as a pointed lesson about how
absurdly easy it is for ideologues of every political stripe to misappropriate
and profit from even the most powerful ideas and sophisticated thinkers. Too
often the rhetorical battle over a hero's image gets confused with the political
struggle itself. So can the defenders of King's "true" legacy finally declare
victory, or has the real fight only just begun?

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