On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his own death and the Promised Land in the speech he gave inside Memphis' Mason Temple. He met death the day after. But he fought death the whole of his career — a bombing and shotgun blast to his home; a stabbing inside a Harlem department store — just as he knew the threat of death every time he stood before a crowd or marched in protest.
What did King do in the face of such threats? According to Georgetown University sociologist and author Michael Eric Dyson, he made a virtue of necessity "by brilliantly using death — the threat of it, the use of it to terrorize black folk, the fact of its existence to spoil the black quest for justice — as a means to inspire black folk to keep going, and to signal to white racists that their way couldn't win."
True enough, and that much is clear in Dyson's new book, April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America (Basic Civitas Books). True too: King's battles with depression, alcohol, and insomnia. But Dyson isn't here to rehearse the facts of previous King biographies. He's here to conclude, in Part One of his book, that "[i]f whites have undercut King by praising him to death, blacks have hollowed his humanity through worship." Neither view honors the man of flesh and blood.
But you ask (Dyson does): How did King's death change America? Depends, Dyson writes, on whom you ask and what you see. Dyson looks to today's low-income blacks, and his "report card," in Part Two of his book, makes for some sorry statistics. This is what Dyson sees:
"There is no more certain and painful measure of the lag between Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream of equality and the stark wilderness navigated by millions of blacks than in the numbers and plight of most poor black women, children, and men. From suffering of children in families that struggle to gain sufficient economic support, to the difficult plight of single black women, to the unemployment and overincarceration of black males, the black family is buffeted by a host of brutal social facts that compromise its quality of survival and make a mockery of King's vision of a black Promised Land."
Dyson lays out those social facts, then offers a summary of the contributions of African Americans to the arts since King's death, then focuses on "Charismatic Black Leadership in a Prophet's Shadow."
Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or Barack Obama: Take your pick. Dyson does — in favor of the leader who "offers our best hope to tie together the fraying strands of our political will into a powerful and productive vision of national destiny, one for which Martin Luther King, Jr., hoped and died." And, no, the "productive vision" does not belong to Al Sharpton.
But it could easily apply to Oprah Winfrey. April 4, 1968 is dedicated to her. And in an imagined interview with a living King (who would have turned 80 this year), Dyson puts the words right into the mouth of the un-slain civil rights leader, whose eloquence apparently did not survive into old age:
"[Oprah] is the symbol of our will to survival through the word and spirit translated into therapeutic doses of information and transformed moral habits that provide her the most powerful pulpit in the world today."
But that's nothing compared to what comes straight out of Dyson's mouth, a formidable thinker, to be sure, but one with a habit of metaphorically speaking to the max. As in:
"[Jesse] Jackson made love in language; he relished promiscuous verbal trysts with audiences around the world, flexing and undulating and twisting his meanings in an erotically agitated cadence that conjured the spirit and the flesh in the same breath."
Which may have made Jackson a hit with audiences around the world, but a leader for which Martin Luther King Jr. hoped and died?
Dyson doesn't think so, and Dyson's right. And he's right about another thing: society's "deep structures and faulty systems," which King identified as the root causes of racism, poverty, injustice, and war. Those "deep structures" were with us on April 4, 1968. They're with us still.
Michael Eric Dyson will be speaking and signing copies of April 4, 1968 at the National Civil Rights Museum on Monday, April 14th, at 6 p.m.