The University Record, January 22, 2001

Extend King’s legacy by aiding less privileged, Dyson urges

Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2001: Commitment and Renewal

By Mary Jo Frank
Office of the Vice President for Communications

Martin Luther King Jr. told the truth, no matter what the consequences. “This man was willing to say to America, ‘I love you, but you do wrong,’” asserts author and African American intellectual Michael Eric Dyson.

Speaking to a Rackham Auditorium audience of more than 800 on Jan. 15, Dyson expounded on the importance of King—the orator and prophet—and the meaning of his life and death.

Dyson, the Ida B. Wells-Barnett University Professor at DePaul University, reminded the audience that we tend to forget King was “cut down at age 39 for the very reason we now celebrate him. He was murdered because he challenged America to do its best.”

King’s popularity waned toward the end of his career, Dyson said, particularly after he spoke out against American involvement in Vietnam. He no longer was in the Gallup Poll’s top 10 list of influential Americans, and universities had stopped inviting him to speak.

“America only loves truth-tellers after they are gone,” said Dyson, who added that King is enshrined now that he can no longer challenge us.

King, who enjoyed the benefits of growing up in a middle-class Black family, would have been amazed at the upward mobility of Blacks today and that the University of Michigan even has Black deans, Dyson submitted.

The civil rights leader would be disappointed, however, that Americans have refused to see and extend his legacy to the poor and less privileged who populate the slums and barrios of our nation’s cities, Dyson said.

King’s power stemmed from his willingness to discipline his mind to defend his ideas, Dyson said. “When he stood up to talk about his dream for America, he did it with a sharp mind.”

Dyson exhorted students to do the same and to learn as much as possible. He was critical of those who ridicule or “beat up intellectuals.” “I’m not ashamed of my game. I’m an intellectual. I write books. I tell stories. . . . I am part of the struggle,” said Dyson, author of the recent biography I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King Jr. He has written a number of books on the African American experience, including Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line (1996), Between God and Gansta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture (1996), Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism (1993) and Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X (1994).

King also was willing to place “truth over habit,” Dyson said. He could admit he was wrong. As King evolved, his theology expanded, and he followed new routes to racial redemption. For example, he became increasingly concerned about economic inequality. King, who chose to live on $6,000 when he was making $200,000 a year, would have been appalled by our nation’s current uncritical celebration of materialism, Dyson conjectured.

King was powerful because he was willing to suffer and sacrifice his life. “Every day, he lived on death row,” Dyson said, commenting on the fact that King was threatened from age 26 on. He was nervous before he spoke. He would hiccup for long periods before and after speaking. King was very depressed the last three or four years of his life, as most individuals would be, under the circumstances, Dyson said. He had been slapped on stage, hit with stones and stabbed in the chest.

King was willing to suffer for his ideals. A powerful symbol, he was part of a large rebellion. “He didn’t want to die. He said longevity had its place,” Dyson noted. Today, if we can’t get a parking place near our office or don’t like the food in the cafeteria, we think we’re suffering.

During the question-answer session, Dyson talked about disenfranchisement of African American and Jewish voters in Florida in the recent presidential election, how King would deal with homophobia, and what young Black leaders can learn from King.

To avoid election problems such as those in Florida, Dyson said African Americans need to be active in local politics and to form coalitions with colleagues. Based on King’s acceptance of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and author James Baldwin—both gay—Dyson predicted King would have confronted homophobia in his own life and in the church, and would have been open to change.

The Black community needs nontraditional leaders and multiple forms of leadership in these post-modern times, said Dyson, who noted that currently the most powerful leader—Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan—is outside the arch of Christianity.

We owe King a debt of gratitude, Dyson said.

He challenged those in the audience who “get to a certain place in life” to become a Trojan horse, referring to the Greek legend of a hollow wooden horse with soldiers inside that was left at the gates of Troy. When the horse was brought into the city, the soldiers opened the gates to the rest of the Greek army. Achieving success doesn’t “separate us from the common predicament of our brothers and sisters. We must let the marginalized persons out. That is the litmus test of the African American community,” Dyson said.

The lecture was sponsored by the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, with support from the Department of Communication Studies and the School of Social Work.