By Josh Eidelson
“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.