"You Don't Need to Go Out Saying Martin Luther King, Jr. Is a Saint:"The American Hero
I was sitting on the living room floor watching television. I can't remember what was on the tube, but whatever it was got interrupted by a news bulletin.
"Martin Luther King, Jr., has just been shot in Memphis, Tennessee," the newsman announced. His speaking was usually a lesson in good cadence and inflection. Now his voice dragged in somber monotone.
Behind me, sitting in his favorite chair, my father could barely manage a hushed but hurtful "humh." It was the sort of wordless expression that gathered into its dismal tone the horror and disbelief that black folk who loved King would surely feel when they learned that he had been mercilessly ambushed. King's mellifluous baritone had been silenced by a piece of metal that traveled with ungodly speed and accuracy to explode its message of death inside his neck.
After the newsman reported that King was seriously wounded and had been shot on a motel balcony (immediately an unholy shrine to the senseless murder of so many dreams and hopes), the television gave us an audience with King at a speech he had delivered the night before.
"We've got some difficult days ahead," King says as his eyes peer intensely into the audience. "But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop."
King's audience erupts in cheers and verbal support. To my nine-year-old Sunday school-trained mind, his reference to the promised land was familiar, but I didn't ever remember it evoking that kind of response in church. Still, I could tell that something magical was happening between King and his hearers. The camera caught King at a side angle, his eyes blinking intently, his head shifting from left to right, and his mouth opened wide as his words spill forth in eloquent abandon.
"And I don't mind," he starts before the applause has completely subsided. "Like anybody, I'd like to live a long life," King yearns. "But long-ge-ve-ty has its place."
King stretched out the word, holding onto and savoring its ideal even as he perhaps felt his life slipping away. I began to get goose bumps. Did he know he was going to get killed? If he did know, did he have a special relationship with God? Does that kind of relationship mean that you know when you're going to die? I got a bit frightened, but I was riveted by King's words all the same.
"But I'm not concerned about that now," King insists. "I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain." The audience senses King's climax, and they continue to perforate his speech with shouts of "Yes, sir!" "Oh yes!" "Go 'head," "Yes, doctor!"
"And I've looked over," King continues as the preachers behind him beg him to "talk to me!" "And I've s-e-e-e-e-n the promised land." King's intensity is imploding, his jaws extending to full range, his eyes almost teary as he gently frowns to concentrate his energy. "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people, willgetto the promised land." The congregation is collapsing in ecstatic verbal release around his every word, measured and articulated with stirring economy.
"And I'm happy tonight," King reassures his audience, perhaps worried that the weight of his possible death, his inevitable death, will push him into the ground. He stops to give them a boost as he seeks to boost himself. "I'm not worried aboutanything.I'm not fearingany man,"he promises his flock. "'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.'" He begins the hymn he had quoted so often, turning suddenly on his heels, as much out of emotional fullness as out of a sense of dramatic ending.
The audience on television, and in my heart, exploded in thunderous applause. It was a life-shaping introduction to an ebony seer whose words fairly brimmed with the pathos and poetry of black life. After showing what turned out to be King's last speech, the television station resumed its regular programming. But in my own mind, I would never be able to switch back to the same channel, to pick up with the same program. I knew instantly that I was forever and unalterably changed. King's rhetoric electrified me, stood the hair on my arms at attention as he trumpeted a clarion call for freedom. Then, in what seemed a matter of moments, the newsman again broke faith with the printed program to announce the final tragedy.
"Martin Luther King, Jr., has been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, at thirty-nine years old."
Before that April night that changed my life, I had never heard King's name, had never heard of Memphis. But in the split second it took for King to enter my consciousness, he quickly dominated my thoughts. As an inner-city black boy, I had already survived the riot that blazed Detroit's ghettoes and killed forty-three people during the previous summer. I saw brothers and sisters loot neighborhood stores, hauling away televisions, stereos, and whatever else they could carry off before dusk fell and before the city-wide curfew was enforced. But even that seismic event, as riveting and as local as it was, failed to capture my attention the way King's death did. The bullet that shattered King's jaw ended his life; its shrapnel lodged deep in my psyche and burned me awake to race in America. This book is the most recent symbol of my awakening and the product of my struggle to interpret King's life and meaning in a new way.
For millions of others, King's death was undeniably a sad benchmark of racial desolation. His assassination sparked a profound period of national soul searching. We reluctantly revive that sort of introspection when catastrophes strike or official commissions beckon us to get things right. More recently, King's image is conjured to settle disputes on either side of a racial or political divide. King's words are also referenced to prove one's authenticity as a champion of truth and justice. It seems to matter little that few people actually read what King wrote or spoke. What counts is that one can marshal enough of King's sentences in isolation from their original contexts to justify one's beliefs or perspectives. Thus King becomes a convenient icon shaped in our own distorted political images. He is fashioned to deflect our fears and fulfill our fantasies. King has been made into a metaphor of our hunger for heroes who cheer us up more than they challenge or change us.
Using King in this way harms our nation's racial memory. Indeed, it feeds the national amnesia on which we desperately depend to deny the troubles we face, troubles that grow from our unwillingness to tell the truth about where we have come from and where we are headed. If we can employ King's words to whitewash our blood-stained racial history -- use him to make it seem that racial progress, though painful, was natural, even unavoidable -- then we can defeat efforts to extend King's work. We can even make his authentic heirs appear alien to King's moral vision. This is the perverse genius of making King the patron saint of the movement to destroy affirmative action. In these circles, King is portrayed as a color-blind loyalist at all costs. Perhaps the most tragic price paid for viewing King in this manner is that racial justice is trumped under the baleful banner of "true equality." Of course, what King understood as a culture blind to color is a universe away from contemporary refusals to take race into account in creating a just society. Reducing King's brilliantly disturbing rhetoric to sound bites lets us off the hook. It even causes us to forget his challenging ideas.
I May Not Get There With Youis a work of biocriticism -- a critical investigation of King's career and cultural impact through the analytical prism of biographical details and life episodes. It attempts to rescue King's memory from the image of romantic dreamer that obscures his embrace of challenging ideas. I try to extract King's flesh-and-blood achievements, and failures, from sanitizing hero worship. Ironically, King's friends sometimes shortchange his challenging legacy by forgetting that he made America better by disagreeing with it when it was wrong. That meant that he was sometimes seen as a threat to American values and perceived in some quarters as dangerous. King's love for America should never be questioned. Contrary to right-wing reports, King was a patriot's patriot. He loved his country so much that he was willing to sacrifice his life for his countrymen. Thanks to his religious beliefs, King refused to idolize the state. He shared a disdain for blind nationalism with the biblical prophets he strongly admired. And despite the charge that he subverted the social order, King was a tireless advocate of democracy. In fact, he was so devoted to democracy that he spent his life making sure that its fruits could be shared by those who had worked the hardest to nurture its growth.
King was at his best when he was willing to reshape the wisdom of many of his racial and national parents. He ingeniously harnessed their ideas to his views to advocate sweeping social change. He believed that his earlier views on race failed to change America fundamentally. He once believed that appeals to conscience would destroy racism. He later concluded that most Americans were unconscious racists. King confessed that he had underestimated how deeply entrenched racism was in America. Now America had to be forced to confront its painful racial legacy. If blacks could no longer depend on white goodwill to create social change, they had to provoke social change through bigger efforts at nonviolent direct action. This meant that blacks and their allies had to seize political power. They also had to try to restructure American society, solving the riddles of poverty and economic inequality.
This is not the image of King that is celebrated during annual holiday observances. Many of King's admirers are uncomfortable with a focus of his mature beliefs. They seek to deflect unfair attacks on King's legacy by shrouding him in the cloth of superhuman heroism. In truth, it is little more than romantic tissue. King was undeniably a great American hero, but he did not become great by denying his mortality. In fact, he eventually embraced his humanity with remarkable abandon. King concluded that his life was not his own. He knew early in his career that he would probably be sacrificed for the sake of both black and white America. This awareness released him into a powerful and sometimes perilous psychological freedom -- the sort of freedom that makes those who haven't faced death for their beliefs extremely nervous. At times, King was personally reckless, even dangerously so. We do not have to make him a saint to appreciate his greatness. Neither should we deny his imperfections as we struggle to remember and reactivate his legacy.
King's image has often suffered a sad fate. His strengths have been needlessly exaggerated, his weaknesses wildly overplayed. King's true legacy has been lost to cultural amnesia. As a nation, we have emphasized King's aspiration to save America through inspiring words and sacrificial deeds. Time and again we replay the powerful image of King standing on a national stage in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial mouthing perhaps the most famous four words ever uttered by a black American: "I have a dream." For most Americans, those words capture King's unique genius. They express his immortal longing for freedom, a longing that is familiar to every person who dares to imagine a future beyond unjust laws and unfair customs. The edifying universality of these four words -- who hasn't dreamed, and who cannot identify with people whose dreams of a better world are punished with violence? -- helps to explain their durability.
But these words survive, too, because they comfort folk who would rather entertain the dreams of unfree people than confront their rage and despair. That is why the ironic cycle of King's fame must be exposed. At first, he was viewed in many quarters of white America as a trouble-making, glory-seeking, self-promoting preacher whose racial opportunism was a plague on black-white relations. The logic ran that blacks and whites had worked out their differences to each other's satisfaction. The last thing they needed was for some Yankee-educated black preacher with highfalutin' words to threaten the segregated social contract of the South. One version or another of this story made fair book on King in even the most enlightened quarters of white Southern society. With the sudden and sharp rise of black militancy, King's challenging beliefs were transmuted into terms that white America fully exploited. With the emergence of Stokely Carmichael and especially Malcolm X, King was seen as the humble, nonviolent messenger of integration. His conciliatory views were contrasted to the supposed racial demagoguery and violence of black separatists. When King was suddenly crowned the Negro of choice within the white press, some blacks became suspicious of his authentic connection to the needs and interests of ordinary black folk. Two of the three major news magazines --TimeandNewsweek-- featured increasingly positive stories on King.Timeeven named King "Man of the Year" in 1964. King was made the poster boy for Safe Negro Leadership. His methods of social protest were embraced by millions of whites as the best route to racial redemption. By embracing King, many whites believed the threat of black insurrection could be contained, perhaps even shrewdly diverted.
To the chagrin of white leadership and the white press, King stepped out of character -- at least the one they had written him into. He began to identify more strongly with the masses of black (and eventually, white and Latino) poor who had been invisible even within elite black circles. Moreover, King became increasingly anti-imperialist and chided the American government for its involvement in the Vietnam War. King's reproval bitterly stung civil rights stalwart Lyndon Baines Johnson. In King's mind, race, poverty, and war were intimately related. When King contended that all human life was tied together in a "single garment of destiny," he was lauded by liberal whites and integration-minded blacks. When he insisted that racism, economic inequality, and militarism were the "triplets of social misery," he was attacked for oversimplifying complex social issues. King paid dearly for his inevitable betrayal of Southern white interests, capitalist ideology, and black bourgeois beliefs. Financial support for his civil rights organization dwindled. Moral support for his war on economic inequality waned. And his antiwar protests caused him to be denounced by other black leaders. In 1967, for the first time in a decade, King's name was left off the Gallup Poll list of the ten most admired Americans.
This is not the King we choose to remember. The King we prefer is easily absorbed into fast-food ads for his birthday celebration. Or he is touted, even by political leaders who opposed him when he lived, as the moral guardian of racial harmony. In truth, political conservatives have more ingeniously than their liberal counterparts appropriated King's image, identity, and ideology. While such moves cause King's liberal admirers to cringe, they rarely enter the war of interpretation over King's legacy with the same gusto as their conservative opponents. One reason is that the times have turned against the sort of liberal ideology that they espouse, an ideology that has been brilliantly tagged by right-wing interests as un-American. Another reason that liberals fail to revive King's full legacy is that it represents a serious critique of many liberal racial remedies and goals. When King changed his mind about race and class, he both enraged conservatives and alienated liberals. While conservatives have zealously consumed King's earlier vision of race, even if to twist it perversely in a greatly changed racial era, liberals have refrained from appropriating King's rhetoric as aggressively. It is one thing to loathe taking King's words out of context to justify narrow interests. It is another thing altogether to understand the need to apply King's words skillfully, especially his more challenging words, to our current situation. Conservatives have retailed King's words. Liberals and progressives must retell his story. But we must make sure, in the interest of truth, to include the parts of King's vision that disturb us.
Why should we remember King's challenging legacy? Because Martin Luther King, Jr., is, arguably, the greatest American ever produced on our native soil. Figures like Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson seized the national imagination while holding public office. By contrast, King helped to redefine our country's destiny as a private citizen in a remarkable career that lasted a mere thirteen years. As a religious activist and social prophet, King challenged our nation's moral memory. He bid America to make good on promises of justice and freedom for all persons, promises that had been extended almost two centuries before. Part of King's enormous genius was the ability to force America to confront its conscience. He also brilliantly urged America to reclaim a heritage of democracy buried beneath cold documents and callous deeds. This book attempts to get at King's unique appeal to conflicting constituencies and seeks to explain the character of King's achievements, especially his later, more challenging thought and activity. While this book focuses on King, it attempts as well to place him in a broad network of social forces and movements that contributed to the black freedom struggle. King drew from a tradition of racial resistance that featured ordinary folk fighting for their freedom. My exploration of King's heroic stature by no means negates the achievements of folk who organized communities throughout the South without the aid of cameras or cash.
Martin Luther King, Jr., is the defining American of our national history. His social vision at its best captured the deepest desire for freedom that any other American has ever expressed. King's quest for true democracy is as great a pilgrimage as any American has undertaken. His hunger for real equality is as stirring a hope for national stability as any American has ever harbored. His thirst for racial redemption is as pure a faith in human morality as any American has dared to embrace. King's surrender of his life to the principles he cherished is as profound an investment in the worth of American ideals as any American ever made. King's career, with all of its flaws and failures, is simply the most faithful measure of American identity and national citizenship as we are likely to witness. As legendary jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis eloquently put it, "When I think of King, I think of a man who was the single person in the 20th century who did the most to advance the meaning and feeling of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. He is the single most important person in the fight that America has to be itself."
As we begin the twenty-first century, in prosperous times that have widened the gap between rich and poor, in the eraNewsweek(June 7, 1999) declared to be the best times yet for black America -- while 15 percent of African American men go to prison -- we would do well to turn to the true Martin Luther King, Jr.
Copyright © 2000 by Michael Eric Dyson
"I Saw That Dream Turn Into a Nightmare":From Color-Blindness to Black Compensation
"I am a mother with six kids," says the beautiful ebony-skinned woman adorned in batik-print African dress and silver loop earrings. "And part of the time I don't even know where I'm going to get the next meal for my children."
All Martin Luther King, Jr., can do is shake his head and utter, "My, my."
King was on a 1968 swing through rural, poor parts of the black South, drumming up support for his Poor People's March on Washington later that year. He had stopped at a small white wood-frame church in Mississippi to press his case, and to listen to the woes of the poor. A painting of a white Jesus, nearly ubiquitous in black churches, observed their every move. Later King would absorb more tales of Mississippi's material misery.
"People just don't know, but it's really hard," a poor woman in church pleads. "Not only me, there's so many more that's in the same shape. I'm not the only one. It's just so many right around that don't have shoes, clothes, is naked and hungry. Part of the time, you have to fix your children pinto beans morning, dinner and supper. They don't know what it is to get a good meal." King is visibly moved.
"You all are really to be admired," he compassionately offers, "and I want you to know that you have my moral support. I'm going to be praying for you. I'm going to be coming back to see you and we are going to be demanding, when we go to Washington, that something be done and done immediately about these conditions."
King couldn't keep that promise; his life would be snuffed out a mere three weeks before his massive campaign reached its destination. But King hammered home the rationale behind his attempt to unite the desperately poor. He understood that the government owed something to the masses of black folk who had been left behind as America parceled out land and money to whites while exploiting black labor.
"At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land," King argues, "through an act of Congress our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor." Building a full head of steam, King rolls his rhetoric down the track of just compensation for blacks by contrasting even more sharply the unequal treatment of the races in education, agriculture, and subsidies.
"But not only did they give them land," King's indictment speeds on, "they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms."
King links white privilege and governmental support directly to black suffering, and thus underscores the hypocrisy of whites who have been helped demanding that blacks thrive through self-help.
"Not only that," King says in delivering the death blow to fallacies about the black unwillingness to work, "today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And this is what we are faced with, and this is the reality."
With one final fell swoop, King reinforces his identification with the destitute, reiterates his belief that the government has failed in its fiduciary obligations to blacks, and subverts the stereotype of blacks shiftlessly waiting around for government cash by insisting that blacks deserve what is coming to them.
"Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check."
This is not the King whom conservatives have used to undermine progressive politics and black interests. Indeed, conservatives must be applauded for their perverse ingenuity in coopting King's legacy and the rhetoric of the civil rights movement. Unlike the radical right, whose racist motivations are hardly obscured by painfully infrequent references to racial equality, contemporary conservatives often speak of race in moral terms gleaned from the black freedom struggle. Thus, while the radical right is open about its disdain for social upheaval in the sixties, many conservatives pretend to embrace a revolution they in fact bitterly opposed. This is especially troubling because of the moral assault by conservatives on civil rights activists who believe that affirmative action, for instance, is part of the ongoing attack on discrimination. These same conservatives rarely target the real enemies of racial equality: newfangled racists who drape their bigotry in scientific jargon or political demagoguery. Instead, they hurl stigma at civil rights veterans who risked great peril to destroy a racist virus found even in the diseased body of ultraconservatism. Perhaps most insidious, conservatives rarely admit that whatever racial enlightenment they possess likely came as blacks and their allies opposed the conservative ideology of race. The price blacks paid for such opposition was abrupt dismissal and name calling: they were often dismissed as un-American, they were sometimes ridiculed as agents provocateurs of violence, and they were occasionally demonized as social pariahs on the body politic.
Worse still, when the civil rights revolution reached its zenith and accomplished some of its goals -- including recasting the terms in which the nation discussed race -- many conservatives recovered from the shock to their system of belief by going on the offensive. The sixties may have belonged to the liberals, but the subsequent decades have been whipped into line by a conservative backlash. After eroding the spirit of liberal racial reform, conservatives have breathed new life into the racial rhetoric they successfully forced the liberals to abandon. Now terms like "equal playing field," "racial justice," "equal opportunity," and, most ominous, "color-blind" drip from the lips of formerly stalwart segregationist politicians, conservative policy wonks, and intellectual hired guns for deep-pocketed right-wing think tanks. Crucial concepts are deviously turned inside out, leaving the impression of a cyclone turned in on itself. Affirmative action is rendered as reverse racism, while goals and timetables are remade, in sinister fashion, into "quotas." This achievement allows the conservatives to claim that they are opposed to the wrong-headedresultsof the civil rights movement, even as they claim to uphold itsintent-- racial equality. Hence, conservatives seize the spotlight and appear to be calm and reasonable about issues of race. In their shadows, liberals and leftists are often portrayed as unreasonable and dishonest figures who uproot the grand ideals of the civil rights movement from its moral ground.
At the heart of the conservative appropriation of King's vision is the argument that King was an advocate of a color-blind society. Hence, any policy or position that promotes color consciousness runs counter to King's philosophy. Moreover, affirmative action is viewed as a poisonous rejection of King's insistence that merit, not race, should determine how education and employment are distributed. The wellspring of such beliefs about King is a singular, golden phrase lifted from his "I Have a Dream" speech. "I have a dream," King eloquently yearned, "my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Of the hundreds of thousands of words that King spoke, few others have had more impact than these thirty-four, uttered when he was thirty-four years old, couched in his most famous oration. Tragically, King's American dream has been seized and distorted by a group of conservative citizens whose forebears and ideology have trampled King's legacy. If King's hope for radical social change is to survive, we must wrest his complex meaning from their harmful embrace. If we are to combat the conservative misappropriation of King's words, we must first understand just how important -- and problematic -- King's speech has been to American understandings of race for the past thirty years.
As a nine-year-old boy, I saved money from odd jobs and sent off for a 45-rpm record containing excerpts of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s greatest speeches. Since King had been dead for only a few weeks and since I'd first heard about him the evening he was murdered, his recorded speeches had a great impact on me. Hearing the passionate words that King delivered as much as a decade earlier didn't at all diminish their powerful hold on my youthful imagination. I listened to his speeches over and over until his words were scorched into my brain. All I'd have to do was hear the beginning of a King excerpt, and I could immediately conjure the speech and the tumultuous verbal support of his adoring audience. King was constantly interrupted by a sweetly bellowed stream of "all right," "tell the truth," "yes, sir," "un hunh," "go 'head," "preach," "hah hah," and "speak." Besides "I See the Promised Land" -- King's searing last speech that interweaved premonition of his death and the promise of black deliverance -- I was thrilled the most by "I Have a Dream." King's best-known refrain echoed the longest on my recording since the compiler must have believed that it was King's most important speech.
"I Have a Dream" continues to draw millions around the globe to its hopeful vision of racial harmony. It is easy to see that many Americans identify with King through that speech. Many can recall where they were when it was delivered. Still others recall how reading that speech helped to locate them on the map of racial conscience. In a recent survey of the fifty most anthologized essays in American culture over the last half-century, "I Have a Dream" made the top ten list. King's towering oration shines alongside the essays of Jonathan Swift, Thomas Jefferson, and E. B. White. And as it skillfully did for me thirty years ago, "I Have a Dream" brings black suffering to the surface and tells us how racial healing can be embraced.
Of course, hearing that speech as a boy thirty years ago and hearing it now as a man makes a world of difference. King's radical tones are clearer. His rebellious flourishes defiantly leap to the foreground. And his dismay at America for denying prosperity to millions of blacks is now more sharply focused. Today I read even his labored restraint as a gesture of profound protest. We have surrendered to romantic images of King at the Lincoln Memorial inspiring America to reach, as he reached with outstretched arms, for a better future. All the while we forget his poignant warning against gradual racial progress and his remarkable threat of revolution should our nation fail to keep its promises. Still, like all other great black orators, King understood the value of understating and implying difficult truths. He knew how to drape hard realities in soaring rhetoric that won the day because it struck the right balance of outrage and optimism. To be sure, we have been long on King's optimism while shortchanging his outrage.
In ways that King could never have imagined -- indeed, in a fashion that might make him spin in his grave -- "I Have a Dream" has been used to chip away at King's enduring social legacy. One phrase has been pinched from King's speech to justify assaults on civil rights in the name of color-blind policies. Moreover, we have frozen King in a timeless mood of optimism that later that very year he grew to question. That's because we have selectively listened to what King had to say to us that muggy afternoon. It is easier for us to embrace the day's warm memories than to confront the cold realities that led to the March on Washington in the first place. August 28, 1963, was a single moment in time that captured the suffering of centuries. It was an afternoon shaped as much by white brutality and black oppression as by uplifting rhetoric. We have chosen to forget how our nation achieved the racial progress we now enjoy.
In the light of the determined misuse of King's rhetoric, a modest proposal appears in order: a ten-year moratorium on listening to or reading "I Have a Dream." At first blush, such a proposal seems absurd and counterproductive. After all, King's words have convinced many Americans that racial justice should be aggressively pursued. The sad truth is, however, that our political climate has eroded the real point of King's beautiful words. We have been ambushed by bizarre and sophisticated distortions of King's true meaning. If we are to recover the authentic purposes of King's address, we must dig beneath his words into our own social and moral habits. Only then can the animating spirit behind his words be truly restored. If we have been as deeply marked by his words as we claim, we need not fear that by putting away his speech we are putting away his ideals. After all, his ideals will have penetrated the very fabric of our personal and public practice. If King's speech has failed to reshape our racial politics sufficiently, it might be a good idea to huddle and ask where we have gone wrong. In the long run, we will do more to preserve King's moral aims by focusing on what he had in mind and how he sought to achieve his goals. That doesn't mean that King's words are scripture or that we cannot differ with him about his beliefs or strategies. We might, however, lower the likelihood of King's words being crudely snatched out of context and used by forces that he strongly opposed.
The great consolation to giving up "I Have a Dream" is that we pay attention to King's other writings and orations. Out of sheer neglect, most of his other works have been cast aside as rhetorical stepchildren. After devoting a decade to King's other works, especially his trenchant later speeches, we will grasp the true scope of his social agenda. We will also understand how King constantly refined his view of the American dream. As things stand, "I Have a Dream" has been identified as King's definitive statement on race. To that degree 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.
Before putting away King's address and before attending to his other speeches, it will be useful to acknowledge "I Have a Dream's" true greatness and read it through the lens of King's mature struggles. True enough, on August 28, 1963, King stood at the sunbathed peak of racial transformation and at the height of his magical oratorical powers. King summoned resources of hope that took wing on carefully chosen words. He turned the Lincoln Memorial into a Baptist sanctuary and preached an inspiring sermon. "I Have a Dream" is unquestionably one of the defining moments in American civic rhetoric. Its features remain remarkable: The eloquence and beauty of its metaphors. The awe-inspiring reach of its civic ideals. Its edifying call for spiritual and moral renewal. Its appeal to transracial social harmony. Its graceful embrace of militancy and moderation. Its soaring expectations of charity and justice. Its inviolable belief in the essential goodness of our countrymen. These themes and much more came out that day.
King's delivery was equally majestic. His lilting cadences stretched along a spiral of intermittent sonic crescendoes. His trumpet-like baritone measured the pulse of his audience's fervor. He evoked his congregation's spiritual longing in sounds as tangy as Southern barbecue. His rhythms were brilliantly varied, a mix of blues and gospel. King encompassed his people's dashed hopes in slow, simmering drawls. He energized their yearning for deliverance in sharp pops of verbal intensity. And his performance was body-wide. His hands stabbed the air to highlight his points. His eyes squinted, then widened -- not at all like the reflexive tics demanded by black stereotype -- to underscore his propulsive moods. King reached to the heavens on tiptoe as his speech climaxed. King's enthusiasm raced through his limbs and circled his trunk as he was literally lifted by the crowd's momentum. It was a remarkable reflection of the levitating effect of his rhetorical genius. All of this made that speech what it has surely become: the defining oration of our age, the characteristic statement of King's career, and the oratorical taboo against which no other speech by King seems to prosper.
As great as the speech is, we have too often dulled its challenge beneath our overhearing of King's immortal cadences. To be sure, it is almost impossible not to be moved by King's vocal charms and intellectual inspiration. His clarion call for freedom rings in our ears each time the speech is replayed. "I Have a Dream's" condensing brilliance remains intact. King packs centuries of pain and possibility into nineteen minutes and thus makes brevity a servant of justice. But the greatest achievements of the speech are overshadowed by our admiration of its other great parts. King intended that day not simply to detail a dream but to narrate a nightmare. While the phrases that expose racial horror are as beautiful as the phrases that clarify hope, they are obscure because they are not as frequently excerpted. The simpler remedy to banishing King's speech for a decade might appear to be the application of an equal-time proviso: whenever the "dream" sentences are broadcast, we must broadcast as well the lines that speak of hurt and disappointment. But that will never work, in part, because it has not yet worked. One explanation is that the American hunger for amnesia is too great. And where amnesia fails, nostalgia succeeds. Our nation is too often overwhelmed by the desire for a past where racial issues, though desperate, were at least clear. For many, that beats living, as we do today, in an age of racial progress where many boundaries have been blurred and issues are much muddier. The inclination in the past has been to seize on the positive, edifying portions of King's speech. The parts of the speech that address the terrifying and disheartening aspects of racism are suppressed. Plus, the cultural forces that seek to control King's image want to fix his image as a healer. They conveniently forget that King was seen by most whites as a troublemaker throughout his career. In that light, reciting the drearier sentences will never turn the trick.
Still, the metaphors King used to describe the nightmare are forceful. Despite the "momentous decree" of the Emancipation Proclamation, Negroes were not free. They were "still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation" even as they lived "on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity." After noting that blacks were "languishing in the corners of American society," King concluded that the Negro "finds himself an exile in his own land." King announced to his civic congregation that the purpose of the march was to "dramatize a shameful condition." And then he evoked an arresting, extended metaphor to capture the frustration that blacks confront. America, he suggested, had failed to live up to its fiduciary obligations to black citizens. With this metaphor, King surgically penetrated the national conscience and sutured black suffering to America's identity as the wealthiest nation on the globe. King claimed that the signers of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were indeed signing a promissory note for all Americans. In the case of blacks, America was in profound default. It had issued blacks a bad check that had "come back marked 'insufficient funds.'" But, King declared, black folk refused to believe that "there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation." The march, then, was a march to collect on the promises that had been made, to cash a check, King argued, "that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."
He was not finished yet. King chided those people who held that blacks should be satisfied with a gradual approach to social change, and he hammered away at such an idea by declaring "the fierce urgency of now," reminding America that the "sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent" would not pass until the coming of the "autumn of freedom and equality." King issued a warning that is still striking when it is shed of our suffocating distortions of his dream: "There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges."
The militancy of these words can easily be relieved if one points out that King rushed to caution black militants against mimicking the hatred of white bigots. Predictably, that passage is often cited to douse the fire of black dissidents. But King's humanitarian urges, glimpsed in his warning against distrusting all white people -- a warning that most black folk didn't need to hear, and one that King issued, perhaps, as a gesture of reassurance to white allies -- do not quench his revolutionary thirst for justice. Thus, in answer to the rhetorical question of when black civil rights devotees would be satisfied, King thundered a string of resolute "nevers": black folk would never be satisfied as long as police brutality, disenfranchisement, lodging discrimination, black ghettoization, and attacks on black self-esteem were routinely practiced. Indeed, black folk would never be satisfied, King shouted, quoting the biblical prophet Amos, "until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." These passages have been virtually erased from our collective memory of that speech.
If such passages from King's most famous oration have been underplayed, many of his other speeches and writings have been unjustly neglected. In King's first visit to Washington to speak before the Lincoln Memorial, in 1957, he argued for black enfranchisement in the form of the ballot. In that speech, "Give Us the Ballot -- We Will Transform the South," King also delivered a stinging rebuke to the sort of moderate neoliberalism that is now in vogue among Democrats. Terming it a "quasi liberalism," King indicts a political philosophy "so bent on seeing all sides that it fails to become committed to either side." King deemed such liberalism of little use to freedom struggles because it "is so objectively analytical that it is not subjectively committed," and because it "is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm." In 1961, King addressed the AFL-CIO convention in Florida in a speech entitled, "If the Negro Wins, Labor Wins." Even then, King briefly outlined his dream while carefully linking it to social and economic justice. King claimed that the American dream is "a dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed" and "of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few."
In his commencement address to Lincoln University in 1961, entitled "The American Dream," King warned that the "price America must pay for the continued exploitation of the Negro and other minority groups is the price of its own destruction." King also chided the critics of poor black communities who failed to understand that black criminality is "environmental and not racial" since "poverty, disease, and ignorance breed crime whatever the racial group may be." King argued against white supremacy and black inferiority, asserting that if "we are to implement the American dream we must get rid of the notion once and for all that there are superior and inferior races." In 1965, after the bloody march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, King, in his speech "Our God Is Marching On!" encouraged his listeners to "march on poverty, until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may march on poverty, until no starved man walks the streets of our cities and towns in search of jobs that do not exist."
In 1967, King delivered a speech at New York's Riverside Church in opposition to the Vietnam War exactly a year before his assassination. In "A Time to Break Silence," he scorned American imperialism and claimed that the war was stealing precious resources from the domestic war on poverty and racism. King urged a "revolution of values," a favorite theme of his later years, which he believed would "soon cause us to question the fairness of many of our past and present policies." In his last presidential address for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), "Where Do We Go from Here?" King laid out a daring social vision, a bold departure from his earlier civil rights focus, that joined concern for economic inequality to race and culture. King begged his organization to be possessed of a "divine dissatisfaction" that would lead them to be upset until "the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice."
Two months before his death, King preached a sermon, "The Drum Major Instinct," at Ebenezer Baptist Church, which he copastored with his father, Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. In this remarkable homily, King, a full quarter-century before "whiteness studies" became popular in American academic circles, gave a brilliant analysis of the cultural meanings of white identities. King spoke of how he talked to his white jailers in Birmingham, and how their pride and psychic investment in their whiteness was a self-destructive measure, not least because they were "living on...the satisfaction of [their] skin being white," when in reality they were as bad off as many blacks. Speaking of them, King said he informed them that "[you think] you are somebody big because you are white," but in fact "you can't send your children to school." In King's last Sunday morning sermon, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," delivered at Washington, D.C.'s (Episcopal) National Cathedral four days before his death, King was highly critical of the conservative self-help "bootstraps" philosophy, which held that "if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself." King sadly but forcefully observed that "the roots of racism are very deep in our country, and there must be something positive and massive in order to get rid of all the effects of racism and the tragedies of racial injustice."
The night before he was murdered, King warned, in his famous "I See the Promised Land" speech in Memphis, that "if something isn't done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed." And in "A Christmas Sermon on Peace," broadcast on Christmas Eve 1967 on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as part of the Massey Lectures, King acknowledged "that not long after talking about" the dream in Washington, "I started seeing it turn into a nightmare." He spoke of the nightmarish conditions of Birmingham, where four girls were murdered in a church bombing a few weeks after his speech. He spoke of the punishing poverty that he observed in the nation's ghettoes as the antithesis of his dream, as were the race riots and the Vietnam War. King confessed that while "I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes," that "I still have a dream." King had stretched his dream by now to include the desire "that one day the idle industries of Appalachia will be revitalized, and the empty stomachs of Mississippi will be filled, and brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of prayer, but rather the first order of business on every legislative agenda." His act of dreaming in 1967 was a courageous act of social imagination and national hope, perhaps even more so than when he dreamed out loud in Washington in 1963.
These few speeches, among King's myriad orations, sermons, essays, articles, lectures, and books, amply prove that giving up "I Have a Dream" does not prevent us from exploring King's dream. These speeches place King's dream in the broader context of his spiritual and moral evolution over the last three years of his life. Set free from the ideological confines of his "I Have a Dream" speech, King's true ethical ambitions are free to breathe through the words he spoke and wrote as he made his way to the promised land. If we have to do without "I Have a Dream" for ten years, we will be forced to pore over his other words, finding in them resources for the love and social transformation that were dear to King. 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 by wrestling with his less popular but more concrete solutions for equality and justice.
Conservatives and liberals alike have feasted on King's hunger for a world beyond race, a world where color will be neither the final sign of human identity nor the basis for enjoying advantage or suffering liability. To be sure, King's life and work pointed to such a day when his dream might be fulfilled. But he was too sophisticated a racial realist, even as he dreamed in edifying technicolor in our nation's capital, to surrender a sobering skepticism about how soon that day might arrive. His religious faith worked against such naiveté since it held that evil can be conquered only by acknowledging its existence. King never trusted the world to harness the means to make itself into the utopia of which even his brilliant dream was a faint premonition. The problem with many of King's conservative interpreters is not simply that they have not been honest about how they have consciously or unintentionally hindered the realization of King's dream, but more brutally, that in the face of such hindrances, they have demanded that we act as if the dream has become real and has altered the racial landscape. As an ideal, the color-blind motif spurs us to develop a nation where race will make no difference. As a presumed achievement, color-blindness reinforces the very racial misery it is meant to replace. Unfortunately, conservatives have not often possessed King's discerning faith or his ability to distinguish ideals from the historical conditions that make their realization possible. Most important, many conservatives lack the sense of poetic license that filled King's rhetoric. Instead they flatten his spiritual vision beneath the dead weight of uninspired literalism.
For example, William Bradford Reynolds, who served as assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Department of Justice under Reagan for eight years, attacked affirmative action as a cruel departure from King's uplifting vision of color-blindness. Reynolds contended that "the initial affirmative action message of racial unification -- so eloquently delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech -- was effectively drowned out by the all too persistent drumbeat of racial polarization that accompanied the affirmative action preferences of the 1970s into the 1980s." Reynolds continued, writing that what had "started as a journey to reach the idea of color blindness" had been sidetracked by infighting among competi
Excerpted from I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. by Michael Eric Dyson
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