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Dyson: King was “a revolutionary and a militant and a radical”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been “romanticized,” his image “frozen in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial” on the day he delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, author and intellectual Michael Eric Dyson told a Packard Lab audience Wednesday night.

As a result, King is often portrayed as “a toothless tiger who was able to cuddle with the best of American civic ideals and embrace, gently, the privileges of American citizenship,” said Dyson, the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, an ordained Baptist minister, and radio talk show host.

“And yet, Martin Luther King Jr. was a revolutionary and a militant and a radical,” Dyson said.

Dyson—the author of numerous books, including Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster, and the New York Times bestseller Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has The Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?—came to Lehigh to deliver this year’s Martin Luther King Day speech. He was introduced by Alta Thornton, assistant dean of multicultural affairs.

Dyson called King “an extraordinary man,” and proclaimed: “Martin Luther King Jr., in my mind, is arguably the greatest American we have produced.”

Unlike such great leaders as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Benjamin Franklin, whose words and deeds inspired the nation, King “was a private citizen, with no formal political ties beyond his interest in shaping the future of a country that had promised the delivery of democracy, and yet had failed to deliver.”

"Amnesia and nostalgia"

While civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who went on to become the first black Supreme Court Justice, and many other prominent black leaders at the time advocated working within the legal system, King took the civil rights movement to the streets, practicing non-violent civil disobedience.

“Amnesia and nostalgia are a lethal cocktail because we pretend now that we loved King,” Dyson said. “And if we loved him so much, why is he dead?”

King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.

Dyson said the only portion of King’s speech delivered on Aug. 28, 1963, in front of the Lincoln Memorial that is widely known today is the line: “I have a dream … my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Dyson referred to the famous excerpt as “34 words uttered when he was 34 years old, wrenched out of their political and ideological context and used against him to justify all manner of assault upon affirmative action, reparations, and the fundamental practice of democracy in this nation.

“Conservative brothers and sisters have suggested that King stood tooth and nail against affirmative action because he insisted that color of skin was not critical, but content of character,” Dyson continued. “And yet King said that as an ideal whose time had not yet come, he saw it in anticipation of a future time, when America could embrace the noble ideals for which the country was said to exist: E Pluribus Unum—Out of Many, One.”

Dyson noted that later that same year, after a bomb killed four girls in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., King said: “I’ve seen my dream turn into a nightmare.”

King identified with poor

The other point that’s been lost is King’s unwavering commitment to the poor, Dyson said.

“What’s very important is that we remember that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was so deeply and profoundly identified with poor people. He died supporting sanitation workers. He died supporting poor black men who had no other recourse but to strike because the government didn’t recognize their worth.

“Martin Luther King Jr. died in Memphis, Tenn., as he spoke out against the low wages and the failure to provide benefits for black men whose only crime was that they were poor in a capitalist society. We tend to forget that now. We tend to forget that because we romanticize Dr. King ...”

Dyson exhorted those attending to “be a friend to the poor. Embrace them. Challenge economic inequality. Challenge low wages.”

Jeffrey Fleisher, director of the Joint Multicultural Program, which co-sponsored the King Day events along with the Office of Multicultural Affairs, said: "I hope students heard Dr. Dyson’s message about the commodification of King's message, and how it has served to drain much of the radical and revolutionary from the public discussion of King's legacy. Dyson quite rightly raised the issue of poverty, a topic which was King's focus toward the end of his life. During the MLK Faculty Roundtable, we also try to engage some of King's lesser known ideas, especially the compelling way that he understood the connection between the Vietnam war and poverty in the U.S."

This year’s faculty roundtable discussion on Dr. King’s writings on poverty and justice will be held at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 23 in Maginnes Hall Room 101. All members of the Lehigh community are welcome to attend.

The selections that will be discussed are available to download online by those who want to read them in advance.

An interfaith prayer breakfast also was held to honor King Thursday morning. Sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs in the University Center, the breakfast brought together students, faculty, and staff in prayer and song.

Story by Jack Croft

Posted on Thursday, January 18, 2007

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