This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Dyson redefines and recalls essence of King

Published: April 14, 2005

Contributing Editor

In a stirring address that deftly mixed academic scholarship with humorous references to pop culture, Michael Eric Dyson sought to redefine—and recall—the essence of Martin Luther King Jr.


Michael Eric Dyson answered questions from members of the media before he gave the 29th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address on April 7.

Dyson, who is Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities and professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, was keynote speaker for the 29th annual Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration, held on April 7 in the Center for the Arts as part of UB's Distinguished Speakers Series. He's also a best-selling author and a trained Baptist minister; the rhetorical skills associated with these professions were much in evidence throughout the formal talk and a spirited question-and-answer session that followed.

Lost in myth-making, Dyson said, is King's true character, which was a radicalizing force for social change. King continually challenged "the dominant culture" of his time, he argued.

"It is too easy to sweep Martin Luther King Jr. along the wave of nostalgia and to surround him with an encircling sense of nobility that is rather abstract and doesn't deal with the life-and-death issues" that marked his life, Dyson said. "Had America truly embraced King, he would not have been murdered."

King was indeed "a trumpet of conscience," he said, "but he did so against the grain, (he) swam against the stream of the prevailing ethos in American history. It's easy to forget that."

Looking at the history of the civil rights movement, Dyson said Lyndon B. Johnson, the "so-called red neck from Texas, did a lot more for black folk who were struggling to define themselves in American society as equal citizens than the enlightened liberal from Boston," John F. Kennedy. ("JFK gets a lot more love than LBJ in the alphabet soup of heroic iconization," said Dyson, in a typical pithy remark.)

In presenting his central argument about King's life and legacy, Dyson moved effortlessly from the chiseled speech of the Ivy League Ph.D. to Ebonics. He invoked figures as diverse as Nietzsche and Snoop Dogg, offering numerous humorous asides that provoked laughter and applause from an appreciative audience.

King, a highly educated individual himself, "was a master of using the vernacular to make a point," he said.

Commenting that he loves the south "in certain ways," Dyson began one of his inspired segues that marked the evening, offering riffs on country music, and later on rap and hip-hop, even singing on occasion. At one point, Dyson joked that he was a "P.I.M.P.," which he defined as "Public Intellectual with Moral Principles."

Looking at the historical forces that led to the civil rights movement, Dyson noted that blacks and whites in the American south often shared such things as culinary art, gospel music and a blues esthetic, a condition that "gave birth to a culture that that was mutual and reciprocal and nourished each other. When left alone, this culture spread a powerful, beautiful symmetry...of things they liked in common."

But the artifice of race, when introduced as white supremacy and then thrust into the social arena, "began to undermine the natural beauty of reciprocity," he said. "In America, we were obsessed with (race)." Some people continue that "silly tradition" and it is the source of suffering today, he said.

Whereas Martin Luther King Jr. gave away so much of his income, many evangelical preachers today have been taken over by "a culture of prosperity," which also threatens King's true message, Dyson said.

"Martin Luther King would have been appalled by this capitulation," but, Dyson cautioned, "there is plenty of blame to go around" and made clear that his criticisms of materialism and the lack of a justice agenda were not limited to black churches or their leaders. He criticized comedian Bill Cosby for his lack of courage in blaming poor people from the vantage point of a rich person. "Don't give him a pass because he's a celebrity," Dyson said.

He also contended that many black churches mistakenly zero in on what he called "narrow preoccupations," such as the debate over gay marriage, rather than focusing on the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, and all that the Aug. 6 anniversary implies for social conditions today.

Dyson said King "loved whites" and wanted to challenge them to think beyond immediate material and consumer concerns, challenging them "to give up the privilege of your white skins. Give up your conscious investment in your innate, though false and mythological, notion of superiority. Give up the crutch."

Dyson's reflections on materialism and the need to focus on the downtrodden returned him to his central point that Martin Luther King Jr. should not be made an icon in a manner that only serves to heighten complancey and self-satisfaction among all members of society.

"Don't render him a namby-pamby, toothless version of himself, a Xerox of his own integrity, he said." For King was a "dangerous" man, precisely "because he was willing to tell the truth."