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.”