“In the last thirty years we have trapped King in romantic images or frozen his legacy in worship,” Michael Eric Dyson wrote in his 2000 book "I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr." Since King’s 1968 assassination, Dyson argued, America has “sanitized his ideas”; “twisted his identity”; and “ceded control of his image to a range of factions …”
Fourteen years later, Martin Luther King remains sainted and distorted in American culture and politics. In an interview with Salon, Dyson revisited that argument, and offered criticism for Glenn Beck, Bill Cosby and Barack Obama. “We’ve deliberately dismembered him through manipulation of his memory,” said Dyson, a Georgetown professor and MSNBC commentator. A condensed version of our conversation follows.
You wrote, “We have surrendered to romantic images of King at the Lincoln Memorial inspiring America to reach for a better future,” while “we forget his poignant warning against gradual racial progress and his remarkable threat of revolution should our nation fail to keep its promises.” How did that forgetting happen?
Well, I think there’s a kind of a deliberate dis-memory on the parts of those who are most challenged by King’s vision, and the demands of his dreams -- not the rhetoric that flows so easily from that mountaintop of holy sacrifice and that sunlit summit of expectations that he expressed in 1963. The rigorous demand for social justice that he articulated once he descended from that mountaintop experience, and revisited the valley where horrible crimes against black humanity were being committed. Where little girls were being blown to smithereens in church bombings. Where black people continued to be lynched in the Delta and murdered along the highways and byways of American culture.
So Martin Luther King Jr. was an inconvenient hero and icon for those who sought to distance themselves from his troublemaking and his controversy. So now they’ve converted his sharp challenge to American society, and co-opted his radical vision into a kind of namby-pamby “We are the World” universalism that bypasses a challenge to their particular ideas.
On the other hand, you know, there are those who are his fellow-travelers, but who have helped merchandize and package and produce an image of King that is one of a toothless tiger. But in the last three years of his life, he began to talk about the triplets of racism and classism and militarism. He challenged himself and others around him, and those committed to the movement, to take things up even higher, to knock them up a notch or two … and he began to speak about the near-ubiquity of racial hostility, and the racism that was nearly endemic to American society. He said that he was sad to announce that most Americans were unconscious racists.
And that’s not the kind of Martin Luther King Jr. that you hear about when you engage in, you know, the holiday, and participate in all of the rituals and pageantry that surrounds him. We’ve deliberately dismembered him through manipulation of his memory. And those of us who have failed to see his radical challenge, in deference to a vision of King that is one of a universalist, that everybody can attach to -- which was true, of course -- but that wasn’t the full story.
The full story is: Here was a man who made most Americans, black and white, uncomfortable. Because he demanded a serious commitment to social inequity, and to remove social injustice where he found it. That’s why he continued to say, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
You suggest in your book that King and Malcolm X, who are often seen as representing two poles of incrementalism and radicalism, had more similar views than people realize, and were moving toward each other by the time they died. How so?
Well, think about this. Martin Luther King Jr., 10 days before he died … said that black people had to be careful lest we integrate ourselves out of power. Hmm.
So what he’s saying there is that under integration, yeah, we might have black and white cooperating together, and black people having access to resources and privileges that heretofore had been foreclosed to black people. But the problem is … what we had generated in our own society, in our own culture, in our own community, in our own neighborhoods, the economic resources we enjoyed because we controlled those resources in our communities -- even if we were forced to because of segregation -- we would lose even that. We wouldn’t get what the promise of integration was fully, and we would lose the stuff we already controlled.
You know, we still control black churches of course, but black banks, black institutions of higher education and the like, things we had built up, black businesses in our communities, out of necessity under integration dissolve. And yet we have only gotten an illusory purchase on true integration and genuine equality. So MLK sounds an awful lot like Malcolm X there.
Malcolm X, on the other hand, after visiting Mrs. King in Selma … Dr. King was in jail, and he said: You tell Dr. King I’m with him, and that these other people better give him what we wants. Because if you don’t give it to him, a much more radical guy – à la Malcolm X -- is coming.
Later, he said: Look, I was wrong about the integrationists. These people are much more courageous than I believed before. And so he was articulating a universal concept of Muslim identity … and even more universal, a broad and ecumenical conception of social motion and momentum, that was being motivated by the belief that all peoples should participate in the progressive realization of progress in America. He was moving toward a much more open-minded idea of how all peoples could come to combat injustice.
And MLK Jr. was embracing some of the ideas of what we might call “black nationalism.” He refused, of course, to embrace the term “black power,” but he refused also to criticize it. Because he understood the necessity for black people to do things that would enable them to rise up psychologically as well -- that’s why he began to say I may be black but I’m beautiful. He began to speak that language of self-regard and self-edification. That was sorely missing in the movement. That the black nationalists, in particular, supplied in abundance.
You take issue with those who “hold that the focus on … the interests of racial, sexual and gender minorities, has undermined a viable radical politics.” You suggest that King instead “would undoubtedly urge the radical remnant in their thinking and activity to be race specific without being race exclusive.” What does that look like, and what does that mean for President Obama?
Well, being race specific without being race exclusive suggests that you never want to give up the pivot point around which you organize the logic of existence, and you never want to give up the funnel through which you distribute uses of the justice in the world. And you never want to give up the goods and resources that should accumulate around both social struggle, personal identity, or around group identity -- being a black person in America, struggling as a group. Because we have been put in a situation where we’ve had to express a cohesive policy -- if not unified -- about issues of social justice, especially in the ‘50s and ‘60s and into the ‘70s. And as a result, we generated political and social and economic and cultural capital that has to be wisely expended …
If racism and slavery are race-specific, then the remedies to racism must likewise be race-specific. But they don’t have to be race exclusive. That is, there are other issues that are powerful and compelling that need to be addressed as well, gender being one of them, sexual orientation being another, class position being another, other-abled people and their struggles for recognition …
I think President Obama until recently had avoided race specificity, had tried to negotiate social change without reference to race, believing that a universal approach would best benefit African-American people.
I understand this strategy. It is one that was articulated by William Julius Wilson, the remarkably gifted and great sociologist at Harvard University. But even professor Wilson has suggested that that was not a most appropriate response to black suffering, and not the best route to racial redemption.
The president finally … a month or so ago, mentioned, you know, targeted practices toward minority and poor people, for the first time. I don’t know how huge a deal we should make of that, but I think it’s an extraordinarily important thing, now that it has shifted his thinking. And I have directly expressed that to his face in the White House, that I respectfully disagree with his universal approach … There’s no such thing as a rising tide lifts all boats and one particular medicine fixes all illnesses …
During Hurricane Katrina it was often said, well, the storm affected everybody, so there was no discrimination. That may be true but it didn’t affect everybody equally …
President Obama would do well to think about that kind of hybrid approach where you keep your eye on the universal but you never lose track of the particular suffering and the particular problems that black people confront.
How did the President respond when you made those comments to him?
He listened. I mean, he’s open to criticism that is principled. I don’t think he responds well to the ad hominem that some of our critics have engaged, unfortunately, but he was quite open, although he was willing to argue for his universal approach …
You contrast Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson as examples of the divergent paths taken by King’s comrades, writing that Jackson opposed the Poor People’s Campaign at the time but “has struck much closer to the radical economic philosophy King favored,” and noting Young’s work for Wal-Mart and his statement that “black folks I don’t even know flying first class” are “carrying on the struggle.” How do you see that tension playing out today?
A combination of those efforts is necessary in order for us to make progress. You know, we’ve got to talk about the radical inequality that exists in this nation and the persistence of poverty … That’s something I’ve written about in my book on Bill Cosby, when I argued with him about assaulting poor people without taking measure of the structures that prohibit their flourishing . ..Jesse Jackson has continued along that continuum, so to speak, in articulating ideas of substance and value toward poor people, and making sure that their condition, plight and predicament is ameliorated. And we have to pay strict attention to those issues.
On the other hand, when we see the exponential increase of the black middle class, or we see extraordinary figures like Oprah Winfrey or Jay Z or Beyoncé … Ken Chenault at American Express and many others exhibit tremendous upward mobility, black genius at the highest echelons of our culture, an Oprah reigning powerfully as a media icon, a ubiquitous representative of black flourishing in the white world. Those are necessary symbols to be embraced as well.
So it’s not an “either/or,” it’s a “both/and.” But what we tend to do is take the success of the people in the black middle class and suggest that we no longer need any help for the poor, because those that are poor want to be poor … that don’t get the appropriate education in order to experience upward mobility. As opposed to saying, there are strict disincentives for those people to flourish. Why is it, for example, that black boys are disproportionately kicked out of schools? ... Here in D.C., for instance, we know that white folk are not going to get arrested for marijuana possession or use, the way black or brown people are …
So those issues have to be addressed and dealt with in broad strokes -- as well as acknowledging the undeniable progress …
When there are African-Americans in leadership roles, or in high-profile roles arguing on behalf of or defending powerful corporations like McDonald's or Wells Fargo or Wal-Mart, how does that impact struggles against those corporations?
Well, obviously it shows that black people that have never had one voice with which to express their outrage against the system. Some will always be opposed to certain kinds of concessions that will be wrought from an interaction and a negotiation. Others will say that we’ve got to accept the best situation possible … It shows a split mind of black America.
However, when we have, as you indicated, black leaders who embrace those institutions as the manifestation of their desire or attempt to try to negotiate to get the best deal, to arrive at best practices, to get a concession extracted that would help the most amount of people. When you look at, you know, the predatory lending that happened in the subprime mortgage scandal, and how those banks were implicated and need to be held accountable -- on the other hand, some of those banks end up contributing in a positive fashion, like NACA -- the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America -- which addresses the greatest bleed-off of wealth in black history …
Wells Fargo, which stood on the wrong side of the issue, might stand on the right side in terms of contributing to the particular program. But it’s a “give and take,” it’s not an “either/or.” And it gets messy. Because the higher we ascend, and the more visible black leadership becomes, some will say, well, it gets in bed with the enemy and undermines the political integrity, the moral intentionality of black freedom struggle. That may be true; we have to take it on a case-by-case basis …
It’s a give and take, according to the dictates of both conscience and politics. But I think the wrongheaded approach would be a kind of ideological fascism that imposes willy-nilly on any struggle a set criteria by which they can be judged, and if they depart from that they are considered sellouts. That’s not very helpful, even as we maintain a vigorous commitment to ethical and moral propriety.
Among the highest-profile Martin Luther King-themed mobilizations in recent years was Glenn Beck’s rally on the mall. What’s revealing about that event?
Obviously, you know Glenn Beck had enough moxy and insight and chutzpah to reserve that day for his march and anticipate what a significant day it would be. Kudos for him for that. On the other hand, you know I find it opprobrious the kind of appropriation of Dr. King’s image, iconic status and legacy for the very purposes that stood tooth-and-nail against him when he lived. Glenn Beck is part of a moral and racial trajectory that stood in strident opposition to all of the ideals and ideas that MLK Jr. put forth when he lived. It’s easier to manipulate a dead icon than face living, breathing opponents and advocates for racial and economic justice …
That is a problem with the conservative appropriation of MLK: They take the name and they take the image, but they don’t take what goes with it: the political chastisement of conservative programs and policies and personalities who stand in vicious opposition to helping those who are poorest, and certainly addressing the issue of race in a progressive fashion.
You wrote that “we have twisted [King’s] 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.” What should be done instead?
Well, look, Martin Luther King Jr. should be usefully appropriated by young people as they attempt to understand his message and integrate that message into the flow of their cultural expression. For example, the group Outkast was sued by … a representative of Rosa Parks, because they did the song “Rosa Parks” without getting her permission to use her name and likeness. I thought that was a wrongheaded move even though I love those people who are around Mrs. Parks … because it is precisely the appropriation of Dr. King by these younger people that will make sure his legacy continues into the next generation, and makes sure that he is a relevant figure.
So many of these figures have been worshipped into irrelevance…There’s a controversy now about Dr. King being used on a [“Freedom to”] twerk media message on a billboard, suggesting that this holiday weekend people should come to a party. And they were upset that Dr. King was associated with twerking. I’m not outdone by such practices. I think that we have to calm down a bit in the older generation about policing the boundaries of propriety around the images of our icon figures.
Now, respect is critical, but at the same time people have to be able to be irreverent. They have to be able to be playful and humorous. And they have to be able to appropriate these figures in ways that they best see fit. So I’m not as inclined to police the boundaries of propriety in such a narrow fashion as others.
And I think that by doing so, we present … the image of Dr. King as a perfect person. But he’s the first one to say he wasn’t. And yet we haven’t been able to relinquish our insistence on his perfection.
And I understand why. We have so few black leaders in history that have been given their respect. We can see that with President Obama -- this is why black people are so very much hypersensitive when it comes to Obama as well, because of the inordinate criticism that he’s received. And the attacks were so vicious and unfair we’re loath to even acknowledge the legitimacy of the criticisms. Because it’s not in proportion of what he has done, and the vicious and often racist assault on him is not often acknowledged.
The tight tie in American consciousness between the civil rights movement and the person of MLK, how constructive is that?
Well, obviously no great movement can be reduced to great men -- or women, for that matter, though the patriarchal accent here must not be avoided, and must be vigorously criticized.
But having said that, at the same time there’s no denying that a charismatic center, from which pours powerful ideas and arguments and words and language in defense of the vulnerable, by both articulating a reasonable response to racism and oppression, but also by creating a rhetorical atmosphere in which it makes sense to articulate certain ideas, and therefore doing tremendous intellectual work in establishing the kind of linguistic and rhetorical precedents that allowed the ideas of the movement to make sense -- somebody has to translate that. Somebody’s got to speak that. And Martin Luther King did that.
There’s no such thing as he’s interchangeable with other leaders. Many other leaders could never have done what Dr. King did.
So we can’t, in the interest of stressing the democratic impulse that should be present in our organizations and institutions, slight the unique genius and the peculiar gift that some of our greatest figures have possessed.
So there is damage to be done, distress to be felt, disconcerting emotions to be acknowledged, in tying tightly Martin Luther King Jr.‘s image -- the imago Kingi, if you will, the image of King as a deified figure -- to the movement. Because we have to, in that sense, challenge the deification of any figure.
But on the other, the deification of MLK gives a kind of divine character to the social struggle of black people. Because if he’s a god in some sense, small “g,” then the struggle of the people is divine. This guy taps into the world spirit -- that is, as Hegel calls it, the zeitgeist, the spirit of the time. If he was led by God to do the things he did, then the people he led were likewise to be led by God, and therefore by association gained a kind of elevated social status that they were historically denied. So there’s not all bad when it comes to the deification of MLK …
We have got to be highly critical of the fusion of the one personality with a broader social movement, but his charisma, his genius, his gift, his timing, his understanding, his intellectual acuity, and the historical accidents, social contingency, that made him live and rise when he did, makes him a perfect vehicle for the articulation of some broader ideas and some bigger beliefs about the nature of social justice for black people and others in America.
And by the way, it also suggests that there will be space opened up for a future that even Martin Luther King Jr. might not have announced, believed in, invested in. And might have actively resisted, so to speak. For instance, when it comes to gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual relations.
A lot of black people are uncomfortable with that -- not just them, but since we’re talking about that group. A lot try to use a lot of these figures, their religious beliefs, [to] justify their, you know, disinvestment -- or should I say, to justify their assault upon or criticism of homosexuals. When it doesn’t strike them in any ironic fashion that the same book that they’re using to justify bigotry against gay people was used to justify [it] against black people …
We’ve got to appropriate Dr. King and the beliefs he had and move them forward into the 21st century. And the problem with tying King too closely to that, is that his own particular, if you will, sexist practice won’t allow for the shattering of his narrow beliefs about gender, and to use the same energy of resistance that the civil rights movement was fueled with in order to address issues of sexual and gender inequality. But I think Kings’s dream is so dynamic, his vision so powerful, and I think his trajectory so huge that he can be usefully deployed to challenge even some of the ideas that he formerly held. That’s the beauty of challenging a merely charismatic interpretation of the movement by tying it too closely to King. But on the other hand, the beautiful ideals of social justice that he articulated can be applied universally, to every group that struggles in the country today.