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.”

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.—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 myself 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 …

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