The Man Who Was King

On Thursday evening, April 4, 1968, nine-year-old Michael Eric Dyson, while watching television at home in Detroit, heard the name Martin Lu-ther King Jr. for the first time. The TV reported that King had been shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee, but it was less the news of King’s assassination than the broadcast of excerpts from King’s final speech of the night before—his “Mountaintop” address—that captivated the young Dyson. “As I listened to his last speech, I was immediately converted beyond the realm of will into a passionate identification with this soldier of love.”1

Dyson dropped out of high school but eventually became a Baptist minister and, at age thirty-five, received a Ph.D. in religion from Princeton University.2 Virtually all of Dyson’s previous pub-lications—whether in magazines or books3—have sounded like extended Op-Ed essays. But his new work of “biocriticism” on Martin Luther King Jr. is a thoughtful and provocative book that tries to put both King’s accomplishments and his flaws in perspective.

Martin Luther King Jr. has become so familiar to Americans over the past fifteen years—not only through television documentaries like Eyes on the Prize, but also through books by former aides such as Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young and by writers such as Taylor Branch and myself4—that people can be readily excused for believing that there is nothing significant about King that they have not already been told. Indeed, in recent years most civil rights scholarship has increasingly concentrated on aspects of the black freedom struggle that only glancingly concern King. In sharp contrast to a biographical emphasis on “great leaders,” the shift of scholars toward a predominantly “grass-roots” approach to Southern black activism of the 1950s and 1960s has become the predominant trend during the 1990s. In recent years the half-dozen best civil rights histories have included two excellent books on indigenous activism in Mississippi,5 two fine studies of local movements in Alabama,6 a valuable look at one Florida locale,7 and a superb history of black efforts in Louisiana.8 On television, recycled footage of King’s “I Have a Dream” address at the 1963 March on Washington may well remain the dominant visual image of America’s civil rights years, but among historians interest in King has been fading for more than a decade.

Dyson’s I May Not Get There With You concentrates on King’s legacy rather than on his part in events from 1955 to 1968. Dyson gives particular attention to the ways in which King’s writings and speeches have been used (and misused) in recent years. He also analyzes the severe pounding that King’s reputation and image have suffered during the past ten years from a series of revelations concerning sex, plagiarism, and the commercially driven behavior of his family. Dyson has made a thorough study of King’s own words and the interpretative literature about him, but he makes little effort to present King within the setting of the movement’s wider history.

When one looks back now, more than…

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