In his book, I May Not Get There With You (full bibliog. info at bottom), Rev. Michael Dyson discussed a variety of contemporary topics in racial politics using the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (hereafter: MLK) as springboard. He is clearly upset that conservatives of many stripes and variations have appropriated the MLK mythos, and wants to set MLK’s iconic status back in service to radical politics. Actually, blacks, whites, liberals, and conservatives have all wandered from the right track due to having come under one or another forms of “amnesia” (290-4) which Dyson details.
As befits a Baptist minister, the material is organized under three main rubrics exploiting alliteration: Ideology, Identity, Image. Each rubric becomes a general gathering point for themes from MLK’s life in service to the political theme, which is the need for ongoing penance and payment by whites to atone for centuries of injustice to blacks.
Under the “Ideology” rubric is included the opening salvo against conservative and liberal appropriation, in order to rescue MLK as a true radical. MLK did not advocate merely color-blindness, or a level playing field. “King said that whenever the ‘issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for Negroes is raised,’ many of our friends ‘recoil in horror'” (24). “You’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society” (39). The ideas section also includes a discussion of MLK’s opposition to the Vietnam war, his socialism, and relation to Black Nationalism. The latter includes an interesting description of the Northern “New Breed Negro” or “Authentic Negro” culture (106), which by presenting a public persona of exaggeratedly stereotypical behavior, attempted to retrieve an independent Negro identity, in contrast to the “Doppelgänger” of the South (105).
“Identity” includes a discussion of MLK’s radical religion, as well as a coming to terms with two of MLK’s undeniable moral failings: his plagiarism and adultery, as well as his now politically incorrect “patriarchy.” The connection of MLK’s “identity” with suffering is compared favorably to modern rappers.
Finally, the “image” section discusses the question of MLK’s patriotism, the ease by which MLK can be tamed as an honored symbol, and the way his image has been exploited by his heirs and others.
In evaluating this book, it needs to be noted first that the main three divisions are as artificial as a preacher’s three-point sermon. At times the categories are “fuzzy”: for example, religious liberalism is an ideology, not just an identity. More importantly, the titles subtly suppress or confuse important issues in some cases: being a cheat is more importantly an ethical failing, not just an aspect of “identity.” Patriotism is connected with one’s ideology and identity as much as “image.” These points might seem to be a mere quibble until it is realized that the effect is to derail important criticism and subsume serious questions about MLK’s character under the more innocuous categories such as “identity” in order to keep the reader’s attention on the politics.
Several issues along this line are important enough that I wish to take them up in separate discussions, namely MLK’s plagiarism, adultery, religious liberalism, and the whole notion of “non-violence” for which he is praised even in conservative circles.
In the remainder of my space here, I wish to analyze Dyson’s use of solidarity themes. Throughout the book — despite the occasional qualification as (merely) “vast majority” and the grudging listing of exceptions –, attitudes and behaviors are analyzed, so to speak, in “black and white.” There is “white privilege” (26), “white racism” (31), “black Christian encounters with a hostile white world” (129), “white supremacy” (157) “white world” (285), “white discrimination against blacks… black resistance to white oppression” (293) and a favorable citation of Stokely Carmichael regarding the Vietnam War, “white people sending black people to make war on yellow people in order to defend land they stole from red people” (68).
Likewise, there is a sympathetic interaction with “black nationalism” even if occasional differences with MLK’s vision are noted. But ask: would a correspondingly sympathetic discussion of white nationalism be permitted? To ask it is to answer it.
Throughout, then, we note two pair of poles by which Dyson recurrently analyzes solidarity: white vs. black, and the good vs. the bad. What we find is that whites are supposed to act in terms of solidaric union (i.e. penance) with the evils perpetrated by whites in the past, but must not lay special solidaric claim to the achievements of whites, nor may they claim to be the exclusive participants in white-created civilization. In contrast, blacks have no connection to the evils perpetrated by blacks in the past, nor to stereotypical behaviors; but they can lay solidaric claim to the achievements, as well as victimhood of blacks in the past. In other words, we can form a “square of opposition” as follows:
solidarity with the good? whites no, blacks yes
solidarity with the bad? whites yes, blacks no
Dyson’s square of opposition should be self-refuting once it is seen for what it is. Yet it is amazing how much of the rhetoric of racial politics presupposed that framework, to this day. Dyson himself is an example.
The book suffers some glaring omissions. The question of MLK’s funding needs to be studied. How did he manage to spend so much time traveling around accompanied by an entourage, organizing protests, speaking, even spending time in jail, while supporting an absent family and, secretly, enjoying the high life? This was done in a time of supposed ubiquitous white oppression. We need to follow the money here — a lot of money. Dyson bypasses this subject completely.
The role of the jew in all of this is another, perhaps related topic bypassed completely. The shadowy jew appears at the founding of the NAACP, the SCLC, and at the center of the civil rights posturing of the 60s. Dyson mentions Stanley Levison and Harry Wachtel but without much investigation. Intelligent Negroes are beginning to smell a rat: the jew is willing to exploit the sensitivities of Negroes and use them as shock troops against the civilization the jew hates; but it is hardly with the best interest of the Negro in mind.
In the end, it is the jewish influence that must be rooted out before we can regain something like our almost-lost Christian civilization. The sooner Negroes wake up to that challenge, the sooner a goal of true common interest can be pursued together.
Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You: the True Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: The Free Press [Simon & Schuster], 2000)