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As the nation marks the 28th Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, we revisit a conversation we had with author Michael Eric Dyson about his book, “April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Death And How It Changed America.”
Dyson explores how blacks and whites have shaped their own different images of the late civil rights leader.
Whites, Dyson writes, “want to see Dr. King as peaceful and clawless, while blacks remember him as flawless, even though he had affairs and depression.”
This segment originally aired on January 17, 2011.
When Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered, I was a nine-year-old schoolboy. I had no idea who he was, had never heard his name or seen him in action. Just as technology had allowed him to speak at his own funeral, it offered me my first glimpse of King’s oratorical magic. Like so many folk born after he died, I first met King on television. I was sitting on the living room floor of my inner city Detroit home. “Martin Luther King, Jr., has just been shot in Memphis, Tennessee,” the newsman announced, interrupting whatever program we were watching. My father sat behind me in his favorite chair. He was barely able to utter “humph.” It was one of those compressed sighs that held back far more pain than it let loose. It came from deep inside his body, an involuntary reflex like somebody had punched him in the gut. The newsman reported that King had been seriously wounded on a hotel balcony. Then we were ushered by film into Mason Temple for the climax of King’s soul shaking last speech. When he finished, I was stunned— that words could thrill me that way, that they could cause such delicious pandemonium in an audience. King’s electrifying rhetoric stood the hair on my arms at attention.
Soon the newsman broke faith once more with the scheduled programming to announce the final tragedy. “Martin Luther King, Jr., has been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, at thirty-nine years old.” After King’s death, I hungered to know him. I haunted libraries in search of biographies, sent off for recordings of his speeches, talked to teachers about his life. I learned that he was a man of peace and love. I also got scared: if King could be murdered for seeking to heal the nation’s racial fractures, then all black men might be vulnerable. I thought to myself: “If they killed him, and he didn’t want to harm anybody, then they could kill me too.” For more than a year, I couldn’t stand in front of the upstairs bathroom sink because a door with a window opened onto a small balcony. I feared that I, too, might be taken out. The bullet that shattered King’s jaw lodged fragments of fear deep inside my psyche.
April 4, 1968 is my effort to grapple with King’s death—in my own mind, and in the life of the nation. My earlier book on the leader wrestled with his radical legacy and the way it had been hijacked by conservatives out to remake King into an opponent of both affirmative action and a culture that usefully takes race into account. The present study aims to understand just how dominant death was in King’s life—how he fought death and faced it down all the same, even as he used death to rally his people in the fight for justice. By probing how King embraced death’s inevitability to shape his social agenda, we may better understand how he secured his legacy on the bloody battlefields of racial transformation.
If King was his people’s Moses, their charismatic and bold leader, then his vision of the Promised Land has influenced how later generations of black folk have measured their distance from the achievements he foresaw. It has been 40 years since King gave his last will and testament in Memphis and encouraged his followers to believe that he had seen the future promise of fulfillment. Are we any closer to King’s beloved community, or are we wandering in a vast racial wilderness from which there is no easy escape? If the signs of arrival into the land of milk and honey are strongest for the wealthiest among us, they are depressing and weak for the poorest. Our faltering quest for justice for the lowliest members of our community suggests the responsibility of the most gifted to forge a path on their behalf. This, after all, is how King spent his last days, fighting for the rights and increased wages of striking sanitation workers. And what of the Joshuas left standing to lead their people into the Promised Land? Has charismatic leadership run its course, or do Messianic leaders still have a role to play in our national destiny? Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Barack Obama all in varying ways can claim aspects of King’s black Christian leadership mantle. But have they measured up to King’s own vision of how those who would come after him must respond to the crises at hand? On the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, it is sobering to realize that he will have been dead longer than he lived. And yet his deeply moving moral vision has lasted beyond the grave. King’s painful but productive martyrdom rescued both his failing reputation as a great leader and the efforts of black folk to move further along the path to racial redemption and national thriving. But now that King is enshrined in a national holiday, his challenge to the status quo—and thus his ability as a symbol to inspire radical social change—is smothered beneath banalities and platitudes.
Only by turning to his death and martyrdom can we size up the work that remains to be done and address the suffering and hardship that too many of the folk he loved continue to face. If January 15, 1929, is a holiday celebration trumpeting the arrival of the prophet, then April 4, 1968, is a day that directly confronts the sorrows and death we must forever negotiate. King’s memory continues to call us forward out of our creature comforts into the sacrifices of body and spirit that he routinely made. If we hear again his voice, and listen once more to his enduring faith, even as he confronts death, we just might successfully conquer the death and grief in our own souls and in our nation. And we might just resurrect the hope we need to inch even closer to the Promised Land he saw.
Excerpted from the book “APRIL 4, 1968” by Michael Eric Dyson. Copyright © 2008 by Michael Eric Dyson. Reprinted with permission of Basic Civitas Books.