(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Why must Martin Luther King, Jr., continue to be such a problem? His January holiday, for a time, was not observed in some states. No sooner did Americans observe it than February brought in Black History Month, causing (puzzled) Americans to recollect his achievement again. Meanwhile, his family squeezes all the money it can out of him—even contemplating a King theme park in Atlanta. Nonviolence does not interest many of the nation’s young people, black or white. Colin Powell has more drawing power than Jesse Jackson. The 1995 Million Man March was organized by Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, not apostles of Christian pacifism. Black churches exhibit great vitality, but their ability to mobilize around the issues of youth violence, gun control, and poverty is limited. In the judgment of Orlando Patterson, in his bookRituals of Blood (1998), after the King assassination:

Afro-Americans rejected his vision of America as “the beloved community” and turned inward upon itself spiritually and culturally, proclaiming an identity movement that denigrates the moral imperatives of the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind and the politics of coalition that sustained the civil rights movement.

In this reading, what won the day was the racial pride movement of the black nationalists—a tendency that has nourished the growth of Afrocentrism, an extreme form of pan-Africanism that would have astounded the man from Ebenezer Baptist Church.

For the rapidly expanding black middle class, the issues that occupied the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the 1960’s—voting rights, access to public accommodation—seem terribly remote. Meanwhile, the new black public intellectuals include such persuasive conservatives as Shelby Steele, Glenn C. Loury, Ward Connerly, and Stanley Crouch. Opposing affirmative action, they interpret King as an apostle of racial and individual self-improvement, character development, and enterprise. They are horrified by the growth of the “underclass” and the population of black prisoners; they thus denounce liberal welfare-state policies as productive of dependency and demoralization. The terrible persistence of racism in the United States, however, keeps such conservatives “black-identified” and ready for further guidance from King’s contested legacy.

Into this confusing scene steps the energetic Michael Eric Dyson. Believing King to be “the greatest American who ever lived,” Dyson objects to the sentimentality King’s name often evokes. He maintains that “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.” Moreover, by raising King to the level of a saint, Americans have “lost the chance to connect the man’s humanity, including his flaws, to the young people of today, especially our despised black youth.” Thus, King-as-he-was must be rediscovered. In Dyson’s view, this forces the reader to see the man as conflicted and contradictory—and nonetheless (or all the more) wholly remarkable. In doing so, what can be learned is that seemingly inconsistent policies and positions can be precious legacies. “Can you love white people and mistrust them at the same time? Of course you can! Can you despise the unjust distribution of wealth and use its fruits to feed your own people? Yes.”

Dyson comes well prepared for a book this ambitious. Like King, he is both an ordained Baptist minister and a Ph.D. (from Princeton). As a young academic, he turned out books exhibiting the rare combination of scholarly solidity and social engagement: Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism (1993), Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X (1995), Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture (1996), and Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line (1996). Called to the Ida B. Wells Barnett chair at DePaul University, Dyson negotiates a path joining black street life (he was once a welfare father) with the church, popular culture, political engagement, and higher education. Politically, he has much in common with Cornel West, who assesses the state of American race relations from the standpoint of democratic socialism.

The volume’s thirteen chapters are organized into three parts: “Ideology,” “Identity,” and “Image.” Despite Dyson’s suggestion that his analysis works from “biographical details and life episodes,” he writes for those who know the King story thoroughly and who worry about such matters as the impact of Malcolm X on the later strategies of the SCLC, the wisdom of King’s stance against the Vietnam War, the difficulties King’s staff had in moving from civil to economic rights, and the challenge of the northern ghetto to King’s nonviolent ideals. Dyson also assumes that the reader knows something (and is uneasy) about King’s several acts of academic plagiarism and chronic womanizing. Indeed, Dyson gains much from the many fine biographies of King—by David Garrow, Taylor Branch, David Levering Lewis, and Stephen Oates. In a sense, then, the subject has already been thoroughly “problematized.”

So, chapters 1 through 5 can take up particular issues in interpreting King’s political ideology. Always aware of the recent conservative appropriation of King’s imprimatur, Dyson argues that the well-known radicalization of King’s views after 1965 represents the “real King” and must control one’s reading of earlier views. Thus, Dyson sees his subject as having supported “affirmative action” long before that policy was named and implemented. Indeed, King would have advocated the (now unthinkable) idea of reparation and compensation for the descendants of slaves. King was not the naïve liberal that proponents of black power accused him of being, either. That he believed deeply in the possibility of “black and...

(The entire section is 2428 words.)