|THE REAL MARTIN LUTHER KING|
January 18, 2000
RAY SUAREZ: This week, as the country celebrates the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, a newly published book challenges the widely accepted views of the man, his work, and his words. Michael Eric Dyson, a Baptist minister and professor of philosophy and religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago is the author of "I May not get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr." Professor, welcome to the program.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Thanks for having me, Ray.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you've thrown it down there from the title page; "The True Martin Luther King, Jr." That implies that there are false ones out there. What do you mean by that?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, I think that there are many distorted images of King that are circulating in our culture that have gained currency -- the King who is the great defender of conservative ideas that Mr. Ward Connelly and other conservatives in California have put forth, the notion that King was a flawless, perfect icon who was able to embody in his life the ideals of American democracy without reflecting as well its flaws, or the King who simply was a make-us-feel-good kind of hero and not the dangerous threat to American society that he was deemed, at least in the eyes of the F.B.I.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, isn't this a part of the downside of American heroism-- that you get used by various people for various reasons? We could look at any number of American heroes and find them used and misused, evolving over time.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: I think, absolutely right. And I think it's our obligation as cultural critics and those of us who are interested in protecting parts of that legacy to do our bit and to do our bidding to interpret that figure, and to wrest the interpretative authority from those forces we think are detrimental. So I claim no kind of Archimedean point of objectivity outside of these king struggles. I'm certainly squarely in the center of that, so to speak. So I really want to put my word in to say, "listen, let's interpret King with a view toward his own progressive evolution, with his own radical viewpoints," and suggest that this King I think is a much more authentic, much more realistic King who was able to force America to look again at the promise that it had given to African American people. So heroism is important, but the social uses of heroism are extremely important, and I want to put forth my bid to suggest that king's heroism needs to be used in a different direction.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you write an awful lot about King, the prophetic religious voice, King the social democrat in economic terms, King the patriot even.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: How do you get your view back into the mix when we're now looking at Coca-Cola ads and other commercial products using the minister's image, using excerpts of his most famous speech? How do you get these other things at least to be part of the array?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, it's very difficult, I think, to get a word in edgewise with the kind of commodification of King's image. But I think we have to use those processes of commodification to try to make America look again at this figure. For instance, what I suggest in my book is that when we look at those Coca-Cola ads or those fast food ads, let's suggest not simply that they celebrate King by putting his image up, but pay your workers a fair wage and a decent wage, and I think that's very important. So what we have to do then is to link King to contemporary issues, which is why I've tried in my book to link him not only to young people in terms of hip-hop culture, to link him to some more of the progressive forces that are being unleashed on the political scene today, say, for instance, embodied in Jesse Jackson and certainly in Maxine Waters; and to also suggest that the contemporary black church, for instance, has reneged on the radical vision of Martin Luther King, Jr., with his with its preoccupation to a large degree with the materialism and the immediate gratification that is being put forth in a theology of that sort. So I think that what we have to do then is to argue that King is part and parcel of a revisioning of American society, and what we have to do and what I try to do is to suggest that King would be critical of some of the things going on now, and therefore, to wrest him away from the hands of these commodifying forces.
RAY SUAREZ: Is America ready for a difficult hero? I mean, the man that you talk about, the flesh and blood man, alive in the mid-1960's, a time of turmoil, is a person with many enemies and many allies who have many enemies.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yes. Well, I think that we may not altogether be ready, but I think we're certainly standing in need of such a radical and complex King. I think the reality is, is that the degree to which we're willing to invest in our heroes' moral perfection is the degree to which we continue to distance themselves, them, from us as resources for really fighting the problems we confront. Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been the last person to have wanted his iconization and his heroism. He was an enormously guilt-laden man. He was drenched in a sense of shame about his being featured as the preeminent leader of African-American culture and the civil rights movement. So the last person in the world to have wanted his own heroization and his hagiography was Martin Luther King, Jr. And yet we have done so. I think what I'm trying to suggest in this book is that King be linked to real flesh- and-blood struggles over issues like economic inequality. We just saw today the wage gap between the have-gots and the have-nots has grown. The people on the lowest end of the spectrum are making something like $10,000 to $12,000 and people on the highest end of the spectrum, the top 5% to 10%, are making something like $150,000. King would have been appalled by that and would have suggested to us that instead of celebrating his birthday with this sanitized white-washing of his own blood- stained heroism, let's do something practical, let's do something on the ground and concrete to help those poor people out.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, your book is the furthest thing from iconization. Instead of running away from those charges of plagiarism on scholarly work, of a less-than- spotless marital life and faithfulness to his wife and family, you do battle with those things, explain them, put them in context, but never apologize.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: No. I think we have to face right in the center of the hurricane, if you will, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s foibles and faults. I think that we do no good to ourselves and do no honor to him by pretending that he did not fail, that he did not wrestle greatly and, at times, surrender to his own sins and his own faults and failures. But I think what's remarkable to me is that those failures, if you will, only magnify his humanity. And in magnifying his humanity, they give us a better sense, a truer proportion of what obstacles he had to overcome in order to achieve his greatness. I think that not only do saints make poor role models, they are incapable in one sense of identifying radically with those of us who are mere mortals. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s mortality says to us that here's a figure who got up every day of his life facing tremendous odds and yet overcame them. And in overcoming them, he is a completely, I think, gifted and efficacious role model for those of us who have to confront similar problems. So if King overcame them, certainly you and I can overcome those problems as well.
RAY SUAREZ: You write at length about the embrace of this sanitized King by people you would call conservatives, but also people that were right there in the movement with Martin King, seemed to have been, well, at least identified by you as co- conspirators in this evolution away from the radical roots of this preacher.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yes, I think that not only have King's detractors had a large hand in shaping his own sanitized legacy, but those who walked with him and who were his friends and his allies have also unwittingly done the same thing. And one of the reasons for that, I think, is the fact that they want to protect King from the assertion that he was an unpatriotic American. And in the minds of many Americans, if you are a radical democrat or a socialist, you are automatically a Communist. And if you are a Communist, then therefore you are an anti- American person and a person who is not a patriot. But nothing is further from the truth. But King's friends, in attempting to shield him, have really left him more vulnerable to rebuff, and have also tried to really reproduce this image of King as this perfect icon of American patriotism by neglecting his radical viewpoints, his embrace of democratic socialism, his insistence that maybe race is a big thing, but class is even a huger dimension and a huger obstacle to be overcome for black people and other poor people to realize economic equality in America. So I think his friends have done him a great disservice as well.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Michael Eric Dyson, good to talk to you.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Good to talk to you, too, Ray.