For some time now, Martin Luther King’s legacy has been up for grabs. On the one hand the King family, including matriarch Coretta Scott King, has had vested interests in protecting that legacy, while figures on the political Right as varied as Ward Connerly (a ‘hata supreme) and the brilliant media guru Ralph Reed (a likely future U.S. senator) have invoked King’s name to further their own agendas often to the detriment of the very constituency that King represented during his 13 year career of public service and political agitation. Then there are the amalgam of corporate appropriators who use King’s image and words to sell everything from burgers and cotton sheets all in the spirit of King’s most oft cited speech, delivered at the March on Washington in August of 1963.
Meanwhile a generation or two of black youth have come to view King with scorn as the more complacent and politically unsophisticated counterpart to Malcolm X (El-hajj Malik El-shabazz). Obscured in much of this rhetoric and icon commodification is King himself, a human being, who often succumbed to both desires of the flesh and the limelight, but who at great risk and sacrifice, transformed himself from an ambitious “southern” preacher (like them bruhs Goodie Mob say, we ain’t country, but simply southern) to a progressive radical democrat, who in the process helped the black masses dramatically challenge the prevailing “racial-tocracy” of American society. It is this “King” that Michael Eric Dyson grapples with in his new book I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr., which examines the ideology, identity, and image of the late political leader.
Dyson illuminates the complexities of King’s identity and challenges the boundaries in which King and his legacy have been forced to inhabit because of desires on the part of the King family, traditional Civil Rights leaders, and the mass media to neuter (pun, absolutely intended) his persona and his politics. As Dyson states in the book’s intro, “we have sanitized his ideas, ignoring his mistrust of white America, his commitment to black solidarity and advancement, and the radical message of his later life . . . we have twisted his identity and lost the chance to connect the man’s humanity, including his flaws, to the young people of today, especially our despised black youth.” In his life, King consistently breached the limits imposed upon his identity, by the conservatism of the Black church, the nature of Civil Rights leadership, the expectations placed upon young black intellectuals in an era when the very idea of one was at best suspect and the intense surveillance of his private life on the part of J. Edgar Hoover (the heavyweight ‘hata of all time dating back to Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph in 1917!) and the FBI.
Dyson understands those boundaries well. As a product of working class Detroit, Dyson’s ascent from welfare father to elite black intellectual is well known. His career has been testament to the ability of some to counter the prevailing images of African-American males. Equally at home with the music of Little Willie John and The Lox as he is with the theoretical musings of Antonio Gramsci or black feminist theologian Katie Canon, Dyson, who is an ordained minister, has often embodied he very dynamic that he frames King. One suspects that as Dyson wrestles with King’s “meta-identities” he is in fact struggling with his own, as he states, “In a way, I have spent my entire life writing this book.” Dyson’s ability to switch rhetorical flows from that inspired by the great preacher Gardner Taylor to that inspired by the Notorious B.I.G. is legendary. To some extent Dyson’s comfort with “border crossing,” allows him to push the intellectual envelop, suggesting as he does in the book that King shared an affinity in many ways with an equally complex figure like Tupac Shakur. When informed, a few years ago before a lecture at a small black catholic school in Louisiana, that many of the schools nun’s would be in attendance and thus he should curtail some of his more “inflammatory” language, Dyson remarked “I guess we gonna have some ‘gangsta nunnery’ up in here tonight.” To some, particularly black youth such responses are refreshing as one of my students once remarked that Dyson “keeps it real,” the contemporary moniker of authenticity among many black youth. It is that metaphor of “realness” that Dyson invokes in his study of King as the book is subtitled, “The True Martin Luther King, Jr.”
To these ends, Dyson employs an intellectual framework that he calls “bio-criticism” where King’s own biographical history is used to inform broader critiques of the black church, black protest movements and the contemporary crises faced within African-American life and culture, particularly among black youth. Dyson’s use of this strategy is perhaps most pronounced in his not-so-subtle critique of the black church. Dyson acknowledges that black Christianity played a significant role in informing King’s commitment to social change. He suggest that King used the rhetoric of black religion to “convince participants of a moral crusade” and to insist that American society needed the “moral resources” that black religion could specifically provide. King’s willingness to shroud himself in western religion not only provided the moral grounds to undermine legal segregation but also allowed him access to the political and media spaces where such ideals could be more widely circulated. Where the fear of militancy often led to efforts to silence the rhetoric of Malcolm X, King’s reliance on religious doctrine and non-violence gained him a considerable public voice, even if that voice was often used to counter other radical voices and salve the anxieties of white citizens. King’s understanding of the value of the latter in the demand for racial justice was also reflected in his use of white liberal religious themes. As Dyson states, “King possessed the unique ability to convince liberal whites through phrases and sermon plots they were familiar with that black freedom was a legitimate goal because it was linked to social ideals they embraced every Sunday morning.”
But as Dyson is also aware that the gap between black religious discourse and practice is often considerable. The chapter that examines King’s “radical faith” is littered with commentary on the sordid circumstances of Rev. Henry Lyons and the National Baptist Convention. Lyons, who served as head of the convention has been convicted of racketeering and theft in a myriad of affairs that included siphoning money earmarked for efforts to rebuild black churches destroyed in the string of recent church fires. As Dyson states, “Lyon’s downfall reminded me too of how King had to chide black ministers who betray their vocation by embracing a toothless piety or giving in to materialism.” But King also shared a kinship with ministers like Lyons in giving in to the allure of sexual gratification and infidelity. Thanks to Hoover’s use of COINTELPRO and King’s road-dawg and sidekick Ralph Abernathy, King’s sexual appetite and considerable infidelities are widely known. Even still the thought of King and Abernathy doing a “tag team giddy up” is disconcerting. Dyson readily admits that such failings on the part of King, Lyons and other black ministers is endemic to the culture of the black church which often rewards its leadership for such atrocities in the name of protecting black masculinity and patriarchy (holla if you hear me, Marion Barry). Dyson asserts, “as surely as King learned from the black church the use of brilliant rhetorical strategies . . . he learned in that same setting about the delights of the flesh that were formally forbidden but were in truth the sweet reward of spiritual servants.” Citing real and fictional examples like Jim Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, and characters from Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, Dyson is careful to remind readers that “such abuses or religious leadership are not peculiar to black churches . . . but the failures of the black ministry reverberate widely because the church remains the dominant institution in black culture and the black preacher a staple in sacred and secular affairs.”
Dyson puts a different spin on King’s sexual indiscretions, by suggesting that King was, in part, reacting to the impositions placed on his private life because of the demands of public service and Hoover’s unrelenting surveillance of his activities. In that the Civil Rights movement was largely committed to blacks realizing a fully developed public identity a project rooted in the New Negro Movement of the early 20th century Dyson suggest that King defiantly confronted such realities in his private sexual life, knowingly in the face of efforts by Hoover to discredit him. In a alarmingly humorous passage Dyson surmises that King’s sexual lifestyle was, a profound gesture of sanity making as he sought release into the forbidden realm of erotic excess as an escape from the unbearable heat of white hatred. It was perhaps a convoluted way of keeping in touch with his own flesh flesh that was being ransomed to redeem racial justice as a condition of his commitment to black freedom . . . King’s exuberant extramarital affairs may have expressed anger at a God who would thrust such an onerous duty on him.
While this may be a realm that only black ministers can fully understand, one is hard pressed not to alternatively shake one’s head in disbelief or bust a gut at the thought of hearing King’s voice utter such profound ditties like “I’m Fucking for God” or “fucking is a form of anxiety reduction.” As Dyson mounts a strong case against King’s “hedonism” he shrewdly deflects attention toward the more widely known indiscretions of President Bill Clinton, who received wide spread black support during his ordeal. Dyson counters that blacks “have often confused the perception of warm feeling from Clinton toward black folk with a set of political practices that reveal a much more disturbing view of Clinton’s character” citing examples of Clinton actions toward Lani Guiner, Sister Souljah and Jocelyn Elders as being particularly problematic. In a public lecture on the book, Dyson suggested that had Clinton taken Elders’s advice of the merits of masturbation, perhaps he would have spared him-self the drama he brought upon Monica Lewinsky, his family and the nation.
Nevertheless, Dyson’s larger point is well taken. King regularly resisted all kinds of sanctions imposed on his identity as a sexual being, a “race man,” and an emerging radical democrat. King’s contention, in one of his sexual escapades, that he was “not a Negro tonight,” speaks volumes about his maturing political persona as entities as diverse as the black church, Civil Rights leadership, liberal allies, the mainstream press and of course his political enemies, seemingly colluded in their efforts to thwart King’s efforts at linking the Civil Rights Movement to larger political and economic issues across the globe. Dyson’s comments regarding King’s “I Have a Dream” speech are instructive in this regard, stating that “it has become an enemy to his moral complexity. It alienates the social vision King expressed in his last four years. The overvaluing and misreading of ‘I Have a Dream’ has skillfully silenced a huge dimension of King’s prophetic ministry.” King’s politics were profoundly tested and transformed by his increased understanding of the political economy of black life in northern cities, including coming to terms and even appropriating at times the increased black nationalist rhetoric in those spaces, and the escalation of violence particularly in the case of the Birmingham Church bombing of 1963 and the assassination of Malcolm X. As he began to temper his demands for racial healing with subtle critiques of the inequitable distribution of wealth and modes of white privilege, he also felt morally bound to publicly confront the escalation of military violence is Southeast Asia.
By the time King crystallized his public opposition to the Vietnam War, in his historic Riverside Church address in April of 1967, many segments of the civil rights leadership were already mobilizing to distance themselves from the “southern” preacher who was supposedly undermining their efforts at achieving a fully integrated society. Many of these leaders including NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, Urban League president Whitney M. Young and folks in King’s inner circle like Andrew Young and Bayard Rustin, willingly denied their intellectual and moral instincts for fear of political retribution by their political “allies” in the Johnson administration. A perfect example of this is the statement by Wilkins, quoted by Dyson, that “civil rights groups [do not] have enough information on Vietnam, or on foreign policy, to make their cause.” As Dyson consistently reminds readers of King’s emerging radicalism throughout his last three years, a radicalism that once led King biographer David Garrow to suggest that King was the biggest threat to the American status quo in the very last year of his life.
Given the “coat of denial” that’s been placed on King’s radical legacy, I May Not Get There with You, is particularly useful in providing examples and context for King’s political trajectory. Dyson balances King’s political and moral strengths with his weaknesses. He takes King to task for his blatant patriarchal and sexist attitudes, particularly in relation to his treatment of black women peers like Ella Baker (check Joy James’s Shadowboxing) and his stunting of wife Coretta Scott King’s own artistic and activist ambitions. Dyson also chides King for plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation while at Boston University. Easily the least interesting aspect of King’s life, Dyson also suggest, citing a study by Claude Steele (Shelby is his evil brother), that King may have been reacting to pressures placed on him by his family (the embarrassment of failure) and the lowered expectations of his instructors at Boston University. In the end Dyson simply accuses King of probably being a sloppy bibliographer.
Many critics have taken Dyson to task for suggesting that King had much in common with the likes of the late Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace (The Notorious B.I.G.). As Dyson states, “we do not have to deny the huge differences between King and many contemporary black youth, but both have good and bad things in common: how they view women, how they borrow and piece together sampling intellectual sources, how they view sex, and how they confront the evils of racism and ghetto oppression.” Even if Dyson’s claims are not legitimate (I for one think that they are), what is the harm in attempting to build some kind of intellectual or ideological bridge between the Civil Rights generation and “Generation Hip-Hop.” Given Dyson’s immersion in black Christian discourse and Hip-Hop culture (he’s regularly referred to as the Hip-Hop preacher), he is perhaps uniquely suited for such a project. In the past Dyson has been criticized for work that transcends the strict confines of the academy and high-brow readership (straight up ‘hate more than anything). Throughout his four previous books, particularly the groundbreaking Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism and Race Rules, Dyson has grappled with complex and compelling issues within African-American life and culture in a prose that is both thoughtful and accessible. I May Not Get There With You, is in that same vein though it represents Dyson’s most sustained scholarly work to date. In many regards, one of King’s “meta-identities,” is the type of “public” intellectual that Dyson has become. While we have clearly sought to find the next King, perhaps more effort should be geared towards producing the next Joy James, Robin D.G. Kelley, or Michael Eric Dyson. While King was not simply a Civil Right leaders, we clearly have had and still do have our share of those. How about some thinkers not afraid to both “keep it real” and keep it right.