April 4, 1968 by Michael Eric Dyson

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In a book subtitled Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Death and How it Changed America, Dyson writes “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 often many of the folk he loved continue to face.”

Ken Jolly

The release of Michael Eric Dyson’s newest book April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Death and How it Changed America, is well timed given our current political, economic, and social state. The Iraq war, the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the solidification and bolstering of Black conservatism, the passing of the civil rights generation, roll backs to affirmative action, entrenchment of “color blind” racism, and the forty year anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., provide a fitting framework in which to examine our current proximity to King’s Promised Land. Dyson’s work, released within this context, is a great representation of the Sankofa, the Akan symbol advising us to look to our past to move forward in our present, examining our progress and hope for the future in this “post-King era” through the analytical lens of the “King era.” April 4, 1968 is divided into three parts. The first part details King’s “relationship” with death; the second analyzes the progress we’ve made in the forty years since King’s assassination; and the third section considers King’s successors or the Joshuas to King’s Moses. Dyson summarizes this basic structure and objective explaining, “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 often many of the folk he loved continue to face.”

“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 battlefield of racial transformation,” explains Dyson in his introduction. It is King’s “relationship” with death that Dyson explores in Part One. Dyson recognizes death as a primary yet largely unconsidered theme central to King’s life and philosophy. Indeed, while scholars have analyzed and investigated the themes of love, hope, justice, equality, and the American Dream, Dyson considers death an ever present element and theme in King’s life and philosophy (as well as in the larger Black Liberation Movement). Simply stated by Dyson, King “ate, drank, and slept death.”

With death as the central theme of King’s life, Part One, “Moses: A Prophet’s Death in Three Acts” often reads less as a story of endurance and survival than a declension narrative. Dyson explores death’s central and defining presence in King’s life by documenting the numerous threats and incidents of violence while presenting his growing depression and fear. Dyson explains that King found comfort and relief in food, alcohol, and gallows humor but ultimately “suffered huge grief of soul and heart, largely alone.” In addition, Dyson explains how King “channeled his deflation and demoralization into the searing oratory” of his sermons, speeches and writing, what Dyson refers to as “automortology.” Composing his own eulogy through his living oratory, King, according to Dyson, struck “a solemn blow against death by delivering his eulogy in advance of the event.” Dyson asserts, “It is nearly miraculous that King managed to keep death in a philosophical headlock as often as he did.” Given King’s battle with depression and the very real and constant threat of death, Dyson does indeed present an amazingly tragic case in which the remarkable strength which allowed King to endure depression was ultimately not enough to protect him from an assassin’s bullet.

In the final chapter of Part One Dyson speaks of the cooptation of King in the wake of his assassination. Dyson rightly explains the reduction, compression, perversion, truncation and abbreviation of King’s revolutionary freedom dream. Since his assassination, King has in many ways been co-opted. Transformed to fit and speak for myriad and often competing agendas, his revolutionary freedom dream is “domesticated” and “sweetened” and his “more challenging rhetoric has gone unemployed, left homeless in front of the Lincoln Memorial.” Considering King’s “posthumous makeover,” Dyson adds, “Whites want him clawless; blacks want him flawless. Both options are bad for using King’s death as a means to inspire the kind of social change for which he died.” Embracing and celebrating a “clawless” King is part of a larger process by which many whites perceive a surface level racism and “reduce the problems of race to face and skin” rather than acknowledging the intersecting structures responsible for perpetuating and maintaining inequality and oppression. According to Dyson, reducing “the problems of race to face and skin” allows us to “believe that we’ve made all the progress we need to make on race.” Yet, Dyson asserts, “That only makes sense if we believe that personal behavior is the key to change – that whites should alter their actions to lessen, or destroy, racism, and that blacks in good faith should act as if such changes have occurred and take advantage of the opportunities at hand.” Nonetheless, when enduring racism and inequality are indeed exposed and condemned, African Americans are attacked as delusional, “race baiting,” and for failing to hold up their end of this color-blind fantasy.

It is in the final chapter of Part One where Dyson hits his stride, defining the full scope and direction of the book by asking, “What then are we to make of King’s death?” Part One is thus followed by an assessment of how far we’ve come in the past forty years to reaching or achieving King’s Promised Land. Defined by the title of the first chapter, “Report Card on Black America,” Part Two of Dyson’s work is a largely derivative assessment of the state of Black America. Employing King’s vision and goals of the “Promised Land,” Dyson examines the last forty years of public policy and statistical evidence to conclude, “The big forces that have always pounced on black life – concentrated poverty, high rates of unemployment and imprisonment, persistent racial and economic inequality, family stress and strain, and violent crimes, especially homicide – remain largely undiminished.” Yet Dyson sees African American families as the primary location or barometer revealing the “lag between… King’s dream of equality and the stark wilderness navigated by millions of blacks.” Specifically, Dyson contends, “… The black family is buffeted by a host of brutal social facts that compromise its quality of survival and make a mockery of King’s vision of a black Promised Land.” Dyson identifies the abandonment of early childhood programs, the prison industry, the “war on drugs,” and economic inequality and exploitation as several of the factors responsible for the challenges facing the Black family. While presenting African American families as a key indicator of enduring racism and inequality, Dyson points to African American artists and cultural and intellectual producers as a meaningful but nevertheless incomplete “index of the intellectual and artistic progress black America has made since King’s death.”

Given the evidence, Dyson’s conclusions in Part Two are probably not terribly surprising or revelatory for many of his readers. While Dyson’s discussion of persisting structural racism and inequality will have most of his readers nodding in agreement, it nevertheless demands repeating in this current time. Dyson is thus quick to point out that, while many speak of this “post racial” era, “We should not be post-racial: seeking to get beyond the uplifting meanings and edifying registers of blackness. Rather, we should be post-racist: moving beyond cultural fascism and vicious narratives of racial privilege and superiority.” Discussed in the context of current retreats from gains achieved during King’s lifetime, this discussion leads directly to Part Three which evaluates those leaders poised to take the helm of King’s leadership. Dyson analyzes those positioned to lead us to the Promised Land that we so clearly have not yet reached given the state of racism and inequality today.

Dyson explains in the introduction, “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 often many of the folk he loved continue to face.” Part Three surveys King’s analysis of and philosophy regarding African American leadership. Dyson employs King’s analysis and thoughts as criteria or a lens by which Dyson evaluates “the achievements and character of representative leaders who’ve emerged in the post-King era.” In Dyson’s view, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Barack Obama are the three individuals who best represent African American leadership in this post-King era and serve or hold the potential to best serve as King’s successor or as Joshua to King’s Moses.

Dyson summarizes Jackson’s personal and professional history, his relationship to King, and his rise to power following King’s death. Given his ability, skill, “gifts,” ego, strength, and hunger, Jackson’s rise to power as King’s heir is presented by Dyson as inevitable. Nevertheless, in his personal history, demeanor and style Dyson presents Jackson as the “anti-King” or “un-King,” defiant, vain, self possessed, a “rebel badass,” as often illustrated in his personal style. Then, referring to Jackson as “the most original thinker to emerge from civil rights circles,” Dyson concludes, “In the forty years since King’s death, it is Jackson who has best captured his mentor’s spirit, extended his work, and interpreted his vision as the most prominent and powerful black leader in the post-King era.”

Dyson then turns his attention to Al Sharpton. While not as detailed as his discussion of Jackson, Dyson depicts Sharpton as primarily a product of the context and climate from which he came as well as a product of his mentors. Dyson concludes, “He is the last ember of a genre and style of leadership that is quickly passing off the scene, forced away as much by new conditions of culture as by the increased options available to a risen black middle class. But the persistent poverty of struggling blacks, and newfangled forms of racism, mean that another charismatic black leader in the mode of King, Jackson, and Sharpton may always be needed.”

If Jackson presents himself best as King’s heir and as “the most original thinker to emerge from civil rights circles” it is, in Dyson’s analysis, Obama who “may be our best hope to tie together the fraying strands of our political will into a powerful and productive vision of national destiny, one for which Martin Luther King, Jr., hoped and died.” Dyson briefly summarizes Obama’s personal and professional history before turning his full attention to Obama’s candidacy and the role of race. Dyson explains, and in many ways advises, “Obama must sort through three models of leadership in dealing with the issue of race” – he must transcend race; translate race; and transform race. While Dyson explains the process by which Obama can “navigate” race to a successful administration, he is also careful to point out, “If Barack Obama now, or some black person in the future, should become president, neither Jesse Jackson nor Al Sharpton would be out of a job… A Black president won’t stop racism or erase bigotry.”

By the end of Part Three Dyson asserts, “If King was Moses who couldn’t get to the Promised Land with us, then Jackson, Sharpton, and Obama… may be the Joshuas to take us further still.” Interestingly, in light of Dyson’s analysis of Jackson, Sharpton, and Obama a glaring question must be asked – why does Dyson only consider these particular men? While Dyson gives passing reference to Susan Taylor, Maxine Waters, Carolyn Cheek Kilpatrick, Marian Wright Edelman [This author adds Cynthia McKinney and Sheila Jackson Lee] there is no treatment or consideration of Black women’s leadership, gender, or of sexism. Thus, the question must be raised again, why are only men considered the heirs to Dr. King? In addition to Dyson’s failure to consider women’s leadership, Dyson also fails to consider younger generations of leadership. Indeed it is curious that while King was but twenty six years old when he headed the Montgomery Improvement Association, Dyson does not consider the possibility that King’s heir might similarly come from our brilliant generation of young people today youth, who, like Obama, lead with new paradigms and vision formed in this “post-King era.”

Throughout his work, Dyson largely omits specific dates, references, and titles of King’s quoted material. At the end of the book Dyson does provide a section of “bibliographical notes” for each chapter but does not provide endnotes in the corresponding text. This lack of references and documentation can make Dyson’s work frustrating for readers interested in further research or in pursuing the leads Dyson provides. Moreover, the absence of the specific dates and titles of King’s material limits chronology. With few dates and lack of specific chronological and contextual references King’s actions, statements, experiences, and philosophy are stripped from their context, context which roots his actions, statements, and philosophy in real events and incidents. With few direct references to King’s material and specific events and experiences, Dyson’s evidence often appears anecdotal and unanchored. For example, on pages 61 and 62 Dyson discusses lynching yet provides no reference or documentation for these incidents. No student writing in any of my classes could get away with this lack of documentation. Throughout most of the First Act, the absence of references and dates presents King as adrift and fluid – everywhere and nowhere – his statements loosened and unanchored from their context. At times, like those he criticizes, Dyson creates a fluid, flexible and recyclable King, applicable to any circumstance, situation or agenda.

While Dyson includes additional dates and chronology as the book proceeds, the lack of dates, references and contextual grounding throughout is the book’s most glaring weakness because it fails to tie King to a specific context and refuses King growth and evolution. This limitation is even more pronounced when Dyson’s work is compared to Thomas Jackson’s recent biography, From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice (2007). Jackson provides a complex narrative of continuity and stability delicately balanced against the transformation and evolution of King’s political philosophy as he was shaped and transformed by events and experiences. Jackson’s work does much more to rightfully present and restore King’s radicalism. While Dyson considers King’s cooptation and “posthumous makeover” Jackson’s biography is much stronger in its discussion of King’s revolutionary freedom dream.

King’s evolution is similarly examined in James Cone’s seminal text, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or Nightmare (1991). Compared to Jackson and Cone’s dynamic and evolving King, Dyson’s King is flat, static, and adrift, presented with little consideration for his growth and evolution. As presented in Dyson, King is the same man in 1965 and 1968 that he was in 1955.

Overall, Dyson makes an interesting contribution to the vast literature on King by examining him through the lens of death. Pressing beyond King’s “relationship” with death, Dyson interestingly points to the larger place of death and mortality among African Americans. Dyson states, “One of the challenges black folk face in the aftermath of King’s death is to confront the cultures of death we have accepted and used. Black mortality has become, ironically enough, a style of existence. Death has become synonymous with black life in so many quarters of our culture.” While leaving additional themes such as justice, love, and hope to other analyses, Dyson projects his discussion of King to analyze the progress we have made in the forty years since King’s death and uses King’s own thoughts on leadership to examine three individuals largely perceived as King’s heirs, or Joshuas, poised to lead us to the Promised Land in King’s absence.

April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Death and How it Changed America is published by Basic, 290 pages, $24.95.

Ken Jolly is Assistant Professor of History at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.

Copyright © Ken Jolly. All rights reserved.

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