Monday, January 17, 2011


Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day! (Photo from this Seattle Times page.) Following are a few lengthy quotes from Michael Eric Dyson's incisive book "I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr." (2000, Free Press.) In a brilliant final chapter, Dyson looks at "The Burden of Representation" -- the mythology that has grown up around King, and what he means to us symbolically today. Dyson cites sociologist Charles Payne, who wrote, "Taking the high drama of the mid-fifties and early sixties out of the longer historical context implicitly overvalues those dramatic moments and undervalues the more mundane activities that helped make them possible -- the network-building, the grooming of another generation of leadership, the sheer persistence.... The popular conception of Montgomery -- a tired woman refused to give up her seat and a prophet rose up to lead the grateful masses -- is a good story, but useless history." (Page 300) 

"The late Nathan Huggins, while agreeing with [Bob] Moses and other critics that one must emphasize organizations and movements, warned against viewing the people who participated in the movement as 'interchangeable parts. You cannot remove Martin Luther King from that picture and have the story happen more or less the same way.'" (301)

"Ella Baker has famously said that 'the movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement.' In many ways, she is absolutely right. Truly, without the raging urge to be free that tore through Southern black breasts in the fifties and sixties and without the apparatus of social transformation that gave King a vision and a vehicle to realize his desire to serve, then he would have gotten nowhere. But as Richard Lischer reminds us, King's unique genius helped to make the movement: 'But the Civil Rights Movement did not "make" King any more than the Civil War "made" Lincoln. Admittedly, like Lincoln, King was summoned by events he did not initiate and exposed to conditions he did not create, but his response was so powerful an interpretation of events that it reshaped the conditions in which they originated.'" (304)

"We must rebel against the varieties of amnesia that compete to reduce King to an icon for the status quo or a puppet of civil and social order. We must combat corporations like the ones he fought for the last four years of his life that seek to turn King into a commodity. We must insist that instead of making commercials to celebrate his life, these corporations pay their workers a humane wage in honor of King's vibrant memory. No amount of mythology will make King any larger than he was, for he long ago surpassed the need to be immortalized by the feeble romance of distorted memory.... He is a hero who loved America so much that he became full of rage and anger for our failing to treat the least to the best our nation can offer, whether that meant money or enough space to live without cramped ambitions or stunted hopes. We have attempted to make King in our own image, but he is, as historian Vincent Harding reminds us, 'an inconvenient hero.' Even from his grave, King challenges our desire to manipulate his image since that desire feasts on ethical laxity, a failure of nerve to do what is right in favor of doing what is easy and familiar." (305)

"King was great because, as he liked to preach, he was willing to serve. His life continues to speak to all of us because he is the truest bellwether of our moral possibilities.... His example is timeless because his energy is boundless, forever present through the renewing kinship of memory. We can claim his brand of heroism by fully and honestly embracing the cantankerous differences that unite us in our constant pilgrimage to America: With King as a guide, we can discover America again, and set off to conquer nothing less than the ignorance and fear that keep us from and not with one another." (306)

A few other links: King's bio, photos, and acceptance speech on the Nobel Prize site. And here's a site on MLK with videos, speech transcripts, and more. Here's the website of The King Center. And this is the Gandhi-King Community for global peace with social justice in a sustainable environment, free to join and take part in the community's offerings.


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