It is delightfully ironic that a site has been approved for the construction of a monument in Martin Luther King Jr.’s name on the Washington Mall, given that in the last months of his life, King’s ambitious goal was to set up tent encampments of the nation’s poor on that very Mall, to bring the specter of poverty directly under the eye of the government and to peacefully but forcefully disrupt the functioning of the nation’s capital. Michael Eric Dyson has rescued King’s vision from bland, unthreatening co-optations in his book I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr., placing the radical face back on this sanitized hero. Dyson understands King’s “dream” to be revolutionary, filled with contradictions rather than concord, stemming as much from rage at a sick nation as from hope of a better one.
As Dyson points out, the dream that King spoke of at the 1963 March on Washington may have hailed the harmony of a color-blind society in the future, but such “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” would be achieved only after tumultuous transformations. Dyson puts forth a modest proposal of sorts, suggesting a moratorium on King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The Reverend himself later acknowledged that “‘not long after talking about’ the dream in Washington, ‘I started seeing it turn into a nightmare.'” He warned of the conflagrations, rebellions and dislocations that would persist until the American dream existed as a reality for all. After the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King fixed his gaze upon a host of previously untackled problems. The goal was no longer legal rights for black Americans; rather, King struck at issues that lurk in the dark underbelly of America–problems of power, privilege and the bond between race and class.
The question of how to portray King is a battle not only over interpretations of history but of how to use memory in the present and future. King’s own economic views were fleshed out and changed over time; by the end of his life, he was an avowed democratic socialist. He found himself advocating radical redistribution of wealth and power in the name of truth, equality and American ideals. In the best parts of his work, Dyson moves beyond an exaltation of King and into ruminations on race, and how King’s dream dealt with the same problems that bedevil America today. He is incisive on the nature of black American heroes like King and Muhammad Ali, who after they die or fall ill are “fashioned to deflect our fears and fulfill our fantasies…who cheer us up more than they challenge or change us.”
Throughout, Dyson seems to view King as more shaped by his faith than by other people around him. Thus, Dyson’s work is aptly titled, and fits into a long lineage of studies of King whose titles project King as messianic. I May Not Get There With You continues a tradition, ranging from Stephen Oates’s Let the Trumpet Sound to Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross and Adam Fairclough’s To Redeem the Soul of America. The immediate image conveyed is of a great man leading his people out of the wilderness and into the promised land. By placing a primacy on King’s faith, however, Dyson does not pay enough attention to the essential dialectic between leader and follower. There is no question that King gained awe-inspiring strength from his faith, that he saw his initial leadership role as descending from heaven, a role that he seemed to know would one day cost him his life. But, as King scholar Clayborne Carson writes, “The notion that…Great Men (or Great Women) are necessary preconditions for the emergence of major movements…reflects…a pessimistic view of the possibilities for future social change.”
Dyson writes, “The tension between following God–into the ghetto, into sanitation strikes…into rural Mississippi poverty–while refusing to follow conventional political logic, led King to radicalism.” While Dyson acknowledges the vital role of “ordinary folk” in the movement, King seemed more shaped by his followers than Dyson allows. In some instances, King increasingly saw himself as a helper in local movements for change. As historian, activist and former King speechwriter Vincent Harding puts it, “He made so much history, but in doing so he was aided, limited and defined by the struggle that was mounting all around him, making him.”
In the years of 1967 and 1968, King endured a period in which his leadership was being fundamentally challenged. His nonviolent tactics seemed outdated as Black Power gained steam, despite the fact that the two strands of the movement may have generally been more in concert than disagreement. Embroiled in a radical campaign that challenged the existing power structure, he was no longer loved by Washington. While a colleague once described him as having “one foot firmly planted in the cotton field, the other in the White House,” King was becoming more and more absorbed by the field each day.
In the spring of 1968, he came to Memphis at the behest of its local black leadership to help in a sanitation workers’ strike which had begun in February. The black workers of Memphis understood their dignity as people to be at stake, and marched clothed in signs declaring, “I Am a Man.” When Jesse Jackson and James Bevel (Southern Christian Leadership Conference staffers at the time) expressed reservations about going to Memphis, King lectured that “he had gone to Memphis for the same reasons he went anywhere: he was asked by the people who were fighting for basic civil and human rights.” King later remarked to friend Stanley Levison, “I’ve never seen a community as together as Memphis.” He very much needed a strong movement, and he lent his voice to the Memphis workers without hesitation. In the first march led by King, violence broke out. He was whisked away from the scene, and his role as the world’s foremost advocate of nonviolence was in doubt. When King returned to Memphis to lead a peaceful march, he delivered his final and most prophetic speech, in which he foresaw his own death. “I think in a rare moment born of inner turmoil…during those days in which his leadership was sorely questioned and challenged, he may have seen, as we could not, that his time was passing,” Andrew Young writes in his book An Easy Burden.
By the time of his death, King was a radically changed man. Not only was he attacking problems of power and wealth but he was speaking for a different segment of people–a people who were gradually defining their leader. He was trying to find the voice not of those who had no rights but of the truly alienated, the weakest and poorest in society. David Halberstam writes, “Their voice is harsh and alienated. If King is to speak for them truly, then his voice must reflect theirs; it too must be alienated.”
Ralph Abernathy, King’s closest confidant and his successor as head of SCLC, recounted how King was deeply affected by his trips to bastions of rural poverty. King “had seen a vision in Marks, Mississippi, that would haunt him for the rest of his short life,” Abernathy noted. King did not just champion their cause–he was profoundly shaped by the struggle that he came to symbolize. Whether or not he was led into Mississippi, Chicago and Memphis by God, he was following those who were fighting for their dignity.
Dyson’s book may have flaws but is deeply important–a timely resurrection that points to the contemporary usefulness of Martin Luther King’s vision, a vital portrait of a radical activist who sought to alter the workings of power in America. His goal was nothing short of revolutionary, his end the stuff of dreams.