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 overplayed.”
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 Americans.
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?