FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968, Michael Eric Dyson was in grade school. Like so many people, he was taught to revere King's courage and sacrifice. Now, 40 years after King's assassination, Dyson is asking how well subsequent leaders have responded to the void left by King? How should African-American progress be measured all these years later?
Dyson has put his musings in a new book. It's called "April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America."
Mr. MICHAEL ERIC DYSON (Author, "April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America"): Thank you, Farai.
CHIDEYA: So, you write about an incident at the 1962 convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It's about six years before Reverend King's assassination. Now, he's addressing the convention when he's brutally attacked by a young neo-Nazi. After the man's restrained, King tells his followers, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop. If anything happens to me, there will be others to take my place.
What's that statement by him mean to you?
Mr. DYSON: Well, I think that Dr. King was trying to reinforce the troops, so to speak, who were fighting in the trenches of racial warfare. To believe that the movement was bigger than any man or any woman, any individual that there was a collective will of the people being exercised through their individual talents, gifts and sensibilities. But that the movement couldn't be tromped, that his death would only strengthen the movement. That the death of any other figure would in no way diminish the greatness of the cause for which they were willing to die.
He was willing to die for his people. He struggled back and forth with that death and what it might mean. But he was signaling to the rest of them that, you know, he wasn't an egomaniac. He wasn't a guy who was trying to say I wanted to be the messiah, even though people had made him that way.
And then, thirdly, I think, what he was suggesting, Farai, is that the cause in which we are invested will, in many cases, cause people to suffer. And that we shouldn't lie to people about the nature of that suffering, but that suffering could ultimately be redemptive. Martin Luther King Jr. after all was quite famous for telling black folk constantly that the black blood that would be shed could indeed redeem the nation.
CHIDEYA: Now, you bring up the term automortology, and you talk about the ways in which Dr. King essentially gave his own eulogy, not just once but several times. Tell us why that was important to him.
Mr. DYSON: Well, it was important to him because he wanted to shape the subsequent perception of his death after it would occur. That's a weird term. I've talked about automortology as a kind of autobiographical statement through death, through anticipating one's death. And then the tense in which it would occur, I call it the future moral anterior, looking back on what will had been and what you should have been. And King wanted to shape how his death would be seen. The only revenge he could take as a Christian minister was to take vengeance on those who would murder him through an ethic of Christian love by shaping in advance of his death what the story should be after he died.
So, for instance, he said, you know, in a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church if any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don't want a long funeral. If you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell him not to talk too long. Tell him not to mention I have a Nobel Peace Prize; that is unimportant. Tell him not to mention I have 300 or 400 awards; that's not important. Tell him not to mention where I went to school. I want you say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody, to be right on the war question, and to feed the hungry and the like.
So he was taking advantage of the rhetorical outposts that had been developed within the Civil Rights Movement for him. He was the most prominent and visible exponent of civil rights in America, and he used that bully pulpit to tell the truth about social suffering and the vulnerable, but also to shape the subsequent interpretation of his life and the meaning of it. And I think it was quite ingenious and also made necessary about the fact that he was faced with death so often.
He was a man after all, Farai, who ate, slept and drank death. He was threatened literally every day of his life. And despite those threats, he got up in pulpits across the nation to preach the fear from his breath, so to speak, because he also was fearful in many ways. But he kept overcoming that fear by delving more deeply into the cause for which he was willing to die.
CHIDEYA: Now, you go into leadership in this book in terms of, you know, the phrase - the much reviled and justifiably reviled phrase, black leaders, in the ways in which different people have been seen both from within the community and outside the community as leaders for an entire people. That's a tough mantel to take on. But you talk specifically about Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Barack Obama, and the different ways in which they took on parts of Reverend King's mantel.
Can you just briefly give us a sense of the ways in which those three men chose to absorb part of the King legacy or, you know, in some cases perhaps had it thrust upon them?
Mr. DYSON: Sure. Well, Jesse Jackson was 26 years old, 27 years old when King died, and immediately became the heir apparent within several months of Dr. King's death. He gave an extraordinary interview to Playboy magazine. They called him the fiery heir apparent of Dr. King some 12, 13, 14 months later. He was able to position himself in the American imagination. Also to perpetuate a legacy of a man whom the nation continued to grieve, and has had to do some difficult things. Dr. King's public career lasted, what, 12, 14 years — 12 years perhaps. And Jesse Jackson has had to carry the load for, now, these last 40 years.
The flaws that one makes, that one has, are more apparent. The mistakes one makes are more apparent when you've died. The sweet scent of marjoram sweeps away all the contradictions, but yet Jesse Jackson has been the most extraordinary rhetorical genius to articulate the vision, the virtue, and the value of black life in the American public square.
Al Sharpton has emerged in the last few years. Reverend Al Sharpton himself sees himself as part of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., but at the same time, he worked up north, Dr. King worked down south. Jessie Jackson, of course, worked in Chicago. And these two gentlemen then challenged some of the prevailing forms of oppression in the midst of a northern culture that had not yet tested its commitment to civil rights.
And Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton forced them to grapple with it. Jackson in Chicago, Sharpton in New York, especially focusing on police brutality and forms of white mob violence directed against vulnerable black people. Barack Obama…
CHIDEYA: And then - yeah, Barack Obama has a sort of different place in the…
Mr. DYSON: Sure.
Mr. DYSON: He has political legitimacy in a way that neither Sharpton nor Jackson enjoy. Jesse Jackson was the lineman who get the ugly, brutal work in the trenches of American racial warfare to open up a space for Barack Obama to be graceful and nimble as he - as a running back, so speak, with the football, that the highest prize of American political life - hopefully, people who support him believe - the presidency of the United States, so he is able to run with that goal in mind with grace and aplomb because Jesse Jackson did the heavy lifting and brutal, nasty, bloody work, and others to be sure.
So I think that the Barack Obama, of course, then has a political legitimacy that neither of those gentlemen had because he's a United States senator elected to represent a district and serve a quarter of people. And yet, he's a charismatic figure as well, creating a sense of movement among the millions who now acclaim him as the best thing that happened to American politics since Jack Kennedy.
So Barack Obama has claimed the unique space within the context of American political destiny and has joined the charismatic authority that attends black messianic figures who become leaders in black America, as well as the quest for political legitimacy that transcends black communities. Because he's not just representing black people; he's representing white people and Latino people, and Asian people. He's representing Americans. And so he's taking it to yet another level in pioneering an even different path than the one blazed by Martin Luther King Jr. or Jessie Jackson and, to a certain degree, Al Sharpton.
CHIDEYA: Well, Michael Eric Dyson, thank you.
Mr. DYSON: Thank you very kindly, Farai.
CHIDEYA: Michael Eric Dyson is the author of "April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America."
That's NEWS & NOTES.
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CHIDEYA: To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org. To join the conversation or sign up for our newsletter, visit our blog at nprnewsandview.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
Next week, Marine Major General Walter Gaskin is one of the highest-ranking black Americans in the military. He headed the Multi-National Force in Iraq before returning home earlier this year. I talked with General Gaskin about his tour and the future of America's fight in Iraq.
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CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.