I've been reading Michael Eric Dyson's "I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr." (2000, The Free Press) In the book, Dyson challenges us to remember King's message -- even the "dangerous" parts -- and to cast aside the antiseptic, highly marketable version of King today.
It's intriguing to me. I was waddling toward my third birthday when MLK was killed. Going to a mostly black elementary school, however, I was introduced to him and several other players that shaped black history by the time I was in second grade.
I embraced King's philosophy of non-violent change, but I've always wondered: How would I feel about him if I actually lived through the civil rights movement, and I myself was challenged/threatened by King to break from the status quo of a Jim Crow system that was the only society I knew? What if I viewed King in the 1960s like several view the Rev. Al Sharpton or the Rev. Jesse Jackson today?
So, on MLK day, a pullout from Dyson's book -- and a challenge for us all:
"[King's] 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, Kiing 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. … 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. …
"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 hhe lived, as the moral guardian of racial harmony. In truth, political conservatives have more ingeniously than their liberal coutnerparts appropriated King's image, identity and ideology. … When King changed his mind about race and class, he borth enraged conservatives and aliented liberals. While conservatives have zealously consumed King's earlier vision of race, evenn if to twist it perversely in a greatly changed racial era, liberals have refrained from appropriating 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. …
"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 American to reclaim a heritage of democracy buried beneath cold documents and callous deeds. …"