Any student of recent American history knows that one of the significant figures in the civil rights movement was Martin Luther King, Jr. And though some of his methods for achieving racial equality were not consistent with New Testament principles for changing wrong attitudes, America, nonetheless, owes a great deal to him.
In Martin Luther King’s famous “I-have-a-dream,” speech (1963), he poignantly expressed the hope that someday his four children would be able to “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Character indeed.
However, if the famous civil rights leader had been judged more by the content of his character than by his civil rights activities, he would have carved a far different niche in history. At least that is the conclusion one might draw after reading Michael Eric Dyson’s new book, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (Free Press, 2000).
Lest anyone should think that Dyson is some radical racist out to “lynch” King’s historical legacy, that is far from the case. The black minister and professor (DePaul University; Columbia University – African American Studies) contends that Martin Luther King, Jr. was “arguably, the greatest American ever produced on our native soil.” Many would suggest that descriptive is a gross exaggeration.
But in spite of such a laudatory accolade, Dyson honestly exposes some of King’s egregious character flaws – though he attempts to rationalize them.
The thrust of Professor Dyson’s book is this: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s image has been so glamorized by the popular press over the years (among blacks and whites alike), that the current black generation is inclined to distance itself from its prominent leader. The author characterizes King as a “safe Negro” with whom white people became comfortable. Dyson, therefore, attempts to humanize (even radicalize) King, so that modern black people, especially the younger generation, can identify with him.
In order to remove what he calls King’s “soapy” and “sanitize[d]” image, Professor Dyson felt obligated to throw the floodlight upon the more unsavory elements of King’s life. For example:
(1) King’s critics have long noted that much of the civil rights leader’s academic writings were plagiarized. Dyson concedes the point, but justifies the conduct by suggesting that this tendency had its roots in a “black tradition” of borrowing and expanding the ideas of other people. [Note: That “tradition” is not limited by ethnicity.]
He contends that “King’s plagiarism at school is perhaps a sad symptom of his response to the racial times in which he matured.” And so, King stole from the writings of others because of his “black” heritage. But what of the thousands of honest black students who never stooped to literary thievery? How did they overcome their “tradition”?
(2) It is widely known that King was a womanizing adulterer. Again, Dyson comes to the leader’s defense. He asserts that the reformer’s “relationship with Coretta symbolizes the difficulty faced by black leaders who attempted to forge a healthy life with their loved ones while the government aimed its huge resources at destroying their families . . . .”
He talks of how “the state has often abandoned or abused the black family with cruel social policies.” So now we know – Martin Luther King’s marital infidelity was the state’s fault! His lack of morals was thrust upon him by the conditions of society.
Every principled black person in America ought to be insulted and outraged by this sort of rationale. It, in effect, says this. You cannot appreciate the advancements of the civil rights movement, and the contributions of Dr. King to that effort, unless you recognize how flawed and victimized by his culture he was! If King’s cheating and adultery have to be played up, in order for the current black generation to “connect” with him, what does that imply about today’s black youth? That’s Dyson’s implication. And young black people ought to resent it.
Finally, there is this notation. While it is widely believed that Martin Luther King, Jr. was committed to the “Christian religion,” he was far from it. He denied some of the most fundamental components of historic Christianity. He repudiated the doctrine of the deity of Jesus, and he rejected the concept that the Lord was raised bodily from the dead. King disdained the New Testament affirmation of Christ’s virgin birth, asserting that the early Christians devised a mythological story to account for the moral uniqueness of Jesus of Nazareth. His theology has been profusely documented in The Christian News Encyclopedia.
This was the Martin Luther King, Jr. that many never came to know, and who has been concealed for so long. And so, as Dyson aptly says in this new volume (regarding his hero): “You don’t need to go out saying Martin Luther King, Jr. is a saint.”