NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Forty years ago tomorrow, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Every year, we celebrate King's life with a national holiday that marks his birthday in January.
In a new book, Michael Eric Dyson argues that we also need to consider his suffering and his death, from the time he took command of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, at the age 26 until his death 13 years later. King lived with threats. He often spoke about his own demise. And Dyson argues, he used that as a rhetorical device and used his speeches to deliver his own eulogy and helped shape his legacy from beyond the grave.
Dyson also argues that King's death allowed individuals and groups to adopt the Martin Luther King that fit their agenda. Many whites sanitized the uncomfortable parts of his radical message, while for many blacks he became an object of worship.
Later on the program, Merl Reagle joins us. The king of the crosswords constructor has an on-air puzzle for you.
But first, what do you take away from the death of Martin Luther King Jr.? What meaning does it hold for you? 800-9889-8255. E-mail: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Michael Eric Dyson is university professor of sociology at Georgetown University. He joins us now from our bureau in New York. His new book is "April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King's Death and How It Changed America."
And, Michael, nice to have you back in the program today.
Professor MICHAEL ERIC DYSON (Author, "April 4, 1968: April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King's Death and How It Changed America"; Sociology, Georgetown University): Brother Neal, always great to be here.
CONAN: In your description of how we manipulate King's legacy, you write whites want him clawless; blacks want him flawless. Can you tell us a little bit more what you mean by that?
Prof. DYSON: Certainly. I think that over the years, the combination of amnesia and nostalgia have been a lethal cocktail that really leaves the body politic inebriated. Let me stop with that extended metaphor.
Prof. DYSON: So, I think what happens is that many white Americans have denied the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. was hounded and harassed for most of his public career in America. The FBI failed to warn him of credible death threats. White, racist hate groups were out to get him, and millions applauded when King's death was announced. So, though one man held the gun, arguably, and shot Dr. King, millions more supported the idea that it was legitimate and credible, and that it should be executed. And that Dr. King along with that idea should be executed.
So a lot of people thought he should be dead. They were applauding when he died. And we tend to forget that now. Now that he has gone into the mists of myth, we forget the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. was hated and harassed and resisted and opposed by many white Americans who felt him to be - as the second in command of the FBI quote him - the most dangerous Negro leader in America.
Now, we want to remove those claws. We force unto the face of - force unto the body of his, you know, his death, this toothless tiger. His danger has been sweetened. His threat has been removed. There are only smiles and whispers and applause now without the kind of threat that he represented.
On the other hand, African-American people have removed any flaws from Dr. King's body, so to speak. They want him to be this perfect icon of saintly achievement without the marks of his striving, without the failures and his foibles and his fragility in the flesh. They don't want to acknowledge that he made mistakes, and that he admitted that he made mistakes. And he suffered tremendous guilt as a result of that.
So, the clawlessness that many white people want of Dr. King makes him an American hero, but in exchange for that we have to deny the fact that he was a danger. On the other hand, many black people accept Dr. King as their icon and hero, but in exchange for that we deny the legitimate and credible examples of his own failure to achieve his own ideals.
CONAN: You also write of him as a man of enormous courage, which is patently undeniable. He was a man of enormous courage. But courage doesn't come from being unafraid. Courage comes from afraid and dealing with it.
Prof. DYSON: Absolutely right. That's well-stated. That Dr. King had tremendous, tremendous fear at some points of death. He constantly struggled with it. He publicly presented on platforms across America the persona of a figure who had ultimately wrestled with death, put it behind him and was now moving forward.
And in many cases, that was true. But that doesn't mean, as you've already indicated, that he didn't have fear. That he didn't backslide into, if you will, a kind of torpor. He was deeply and profoundly depressed as result of that. Sometimes, he had horrible hiccups. He would hiccup, you know, for hours on in, then he'd stand up deliver a speech flawlessly. And then as soon as he was done he would hiccup again. He bend his elbow — bent his elbow a bit because he was trying to relieve the insomnia that wouldn't go away because the doctor's pills that have been prescribed for him ceased to work. This was a man who was under siege in a way that most of us can never begin to comprehend, and all because he wanted to bring transformation to American society.
CONAN: Under siege. You quote him at one point asking — I think it's David Abernathy - you think I'm a paranoid, don't you?
Prof. DYSON: Yeah, (unintelligible). He did ask him that, his former aide. He said, you think, I'm paranoid, and he said yes. But did he not - was he not proved to be true? He couldn't, at the end of his life, have much relief except if he were in a room without windows. And he would always fall upon the eyes of those coming in and wondering if this is the person who will finally do the deed. Can you imagine the kind of enormous psychic and spiritual weight that that recognition and consciousness imposed upon Dr. King?
CONAN: It's fascinating. You coin a word automortology, which…
Prof. DYSON: Mm-hmm.
CONAN: …is a fascinating word - in King's use of his own death, to anticipate his own death, and further than that to define his own legacy before he dies.
Prof. DYSON: Absolutely. It was a brilliant rhetorical gesture. You know, and this automortology I've carved out of several terms, autophenotology and some stuff from post-structuralism and another young scholar who talks about automortography. But I wanted automortology because I think it represents the logos, the word. He is literally speaking about his death, in anticipation of the event, looking forward to the event that will eventually occur. But then through that event, looking back on a life that he lived and what should be said about him once he dies.
That's an extraordinary kind of Einsteinian rupture of the space-time continuum in the racial realm. And Dr. King brilliantly used death to remind people of the price to be paid, of the sacrifice, suffering and blood that would be shed, but also how redemptive his death could be used and his martyrdom could be used to further the cause for which they were willing to die.
CONAN: And in terms of those redemptive possibilities, I think you suggest that they've been, well, diluted considerably by that recasting of Dr. King that you say, the clawless and the flawless. Nevertheless, if we all make Dr. King, you know, adapt to our image of him and his mind or our agenda of him and his mind, there have been reviewers of your book who suggest in some ways you do the same thing, too. For example, you say that Dr. King would have supported gay rights, yet they say he never said anything about that.
Prof. DYSON: No. Absolutely. And I have to say that forthrightly he never said anything about it. But if we look at the trajectory of his life, we look at the major apostles associated with him — Coretta Scott King, his own wife; Jesse Jackson, his most noted apostle — both of these human beings grew to appreciate not only women's rights, and Dr. King's was no supporter of them, but we assume that had he lived and continued along the path of enlightenment and self-criticism, and he was one of the most self-critical leaders we've ever had, then he would have checked himself about his own patriarch, and sexism, and I think ultimately homophobia, as have many of his acolytes.
So, the - you know, some people, I think, are rooting their arguments in an early King. For instance, I did see one reviewer suggesting that King was against modern humanism and music. That's the early King. They're not doing a reading of King's evolution and growth. Here was a man who was deeply embedded in a recognition that we must engage culture where we are, use whatever we have available to us to secure the interests and procure the freedom of black peoples and other poor peoples across the board.
So the earlier King was much more formal and a bit more rigid than the latter-day King. And I think that the arguments have to be made in light of the evidence. So my argument certainly, I - in my book with a projected review - interview of Martin Luther King Jr. So, I put my, you know, biases straight on the table, but I have linked these and rooted them in some very serious and sustained reading of Martin Luther King Jr.'s ideas. So I don't think that they contradict them in any fundamental fashion.
CONAN: Okay. We would like to believe that he would hold these positions, which is…
Dr. DYSON: Absolutely.
CONAN: Okay. Let's get some callers in on the conversation: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, our guest is Michael Eric Dyson. His new book: "April 4, 1968."
And let's go to Mike(ph). And Mike's with us from La Grande in Oregon.
MIKE (Caller): Yo.
CONAN: Hi Mike. You're on the air.
MIKE: Hello. Well - excuse me - I'm calling from La Grande in far northeast Oregon. But at the time of Martin Luther King's assassination, I was living in New York. And I was working at the Fillmore East at that time. In that particular day, I came in early and then went down - Jimmy Hendrix actually had the club in the village called Generation, and B.B. King was playing there. And this is in the early afternoon, early evening before the program at Fillmore East.
And B.B. King was weeping. He was crying. And I had no idea of what was going on. And he said he had just lost his greatest friend. He proceeded to play for a while. And then I left. And he was just totally shattered. And I walked to the Fillmore East and found that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. And there was a total poll over New York City with the expectation of riots. So they cancel the show for that evening, as I recall, and we headed up home. And of course, there were riots and there were disturbances.
And I have seen Martin King in 1967 at the steps of Sproul Hall in Berkeley, California, where I was going to school at the time. And there was a - you know, he was a hero of mine, but he was under attack from the left and the right. The Black Panthers were there. Of course, they didn't think very much of him. And he was also under attack from the right. And his speech was wonderful, it was great.
And so, when he was assassinated, I was about 20 years old, and I had seen the death of John Kennedy, and then Martin Luther King, and then later on, Bobby Kennedy.
Dr. DYSON: Right.
MIKE: And for myself and my generation, I don't know if people younger can appreciate this, but it was the total destruction of ideals, heroes, people that were to guide us into the future. It was the end of all that. And you know, for some of us, I don't know if we ever really quite recovered from that.
Dr. DYSON: Yeah. Yeah.
MIKE: It is hard to speak of because that was such turmoil of those years. And of course, not everything was bad. There were great things going on. But there were so much turmoil. And then with these major deaths - and I'm sure there were a bunch of others as well - it was like the end of all that we were really aiming for, that we wanted. And I deeply regretted that when I was in high school. I didn't have the courage to cut loose for few a weeks or a month and go down on the freedom riots in the South. I never did do that, but…
Dr. DYSON: Yes, sir. Well…
MIKE: So that's my viewpoint.
Dr. DYSON: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. I think that, you know, the caller makes an incredibly important point. First of all, that the death of the demi or just the Gods who walked on the Earth, the political figures and civil rights leaders who embodied the incredible ideals and virtues after which, we, you know, sought tremendous inclusions. So I think that death is something that has not been yet overcome, and I think the heartbreak and heartache is something that we continue to grapple with.
CONAN: Tomorrow, 40 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, how have today's black leaders lived up to his legacy? What would the King have to say about the events of the past 40 years? We'll get to that and more with Michael Eric Dyson in a moment. 800-989-8255. E-mail us: email@example.com.
I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
A little bit later in the hour, Merl Reagle, our puzzle master du jour, joins us. He has on-air puzzle challenge for us. We'll get to that in a few minutes.
But let's continue our conversation with Michael Eric Dyson. We've talked with him many times about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. In his new book, he talks of the legacy of King's death 40 years ago tomorrow and how it changed America.
We were able to play just a clip of King's final speech in Memphis at the top of the program. You can hear that speech and its entirety and look at more coverage of 1968 and the civil rights era at npr.org/talk. And of course, you are welcome to join us on the phone. What should we learn from the death of Martin Luther King Jr.? What meaning does it hold for you? 800-989-8255. E-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can read one of the listeners have to say on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Michael Eric Dyson, you used a marvelous construction. You talk about Martin Luther King's love affair with America. And if he had given up on the American dream, he write, he would have stopped being disappointed with America.
Mr. DYSON: Absolutely right. A lot of people think that patriotism is about an uncritical celebration and the elevation of the status quo and the nation as is - my country, right or wrong. That's not patriotism. That's nationalism. That's a blind ideal of the nation, and nothing about the facts or history or contradictory or conflicting political realities will in any way interrupt that. That's not what patriotism is.
Patriotism is being able to embrace one's country, love it enough to tell the truth about its greatnesses and its glories and its grieves and its flaws. And Martin Luther King Jr. loved the country so much that he was so deeply disappointed when it failed to achieve the ideals that it had said it represented. The night before he was murdered, for instance, Dr. King said all we're saying to you, America, is be true to what you said on paper.
And that be true to what you said on paper meant that Dr. King was willing to see the effort through of moving from parchment to pavement, from the ideals of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights into the streets where blood flowed; in the trenches of racial warfare, where the battle over the future of America; whether we would adhere to the better angels of our nature or whether we would succumb to the devils within.
Dr. King was deeply engaged in that struggle. And his love can be measured by his disappointment.
CONAN: Let's go to Brenda(ph). Brenda, calling us from St. Louis.
BRENDA (Caller): Hi. Hi, Neal, Dr. Dyson, glad to be on. I saw Dr. King when I was about - he came to my church in St. Louis and spoke twice of civil rights at a civil rights rally. And I was about 14 when he was killed. You know, it devastated me. But I tell you that I wanted to become politically aware and as soon as 18-year-old, I've got the right to vote. I registered and I swore that would never not vote for the people who've died and all that. I mean, that's how I decided to be stay and become politically aware.
Mr. DYSON: Yes ma'am. Now that's tremendous. I think that, you know, Dr. King's death, hearing him speak being, energized by his presence, is something that those who were fortune enough to hear him can carry with them until the end to their lives.
But those who were not able to see that sacrifice, and to see in action the powerful oratory that Dr. King shared, the magic that he dispense when he spoke. I have missed out on that and sometimes, you know, fail to go to the ballot box, fail to go vote, get kind of cynical. And when they get cynical, they get lazy in terms of exercising the franchise. And it does make a difference that if you knew that people pay their price with their blood, with their sacrifice, with their careers to make it possible for people to vote, I think lot more of us would be civically engaged.
BRENDA: Well, I truly appreciated the impact that he held in my life. My parents were always - they were older but they were always involved politically, and I would go with them to political meetings. And I just - as I tell people never not vote. I don't care what it's about. You've always got to speak up, and I think that's the legacy Dr. King has given to me.
Dr. DYSON: No question about it, and I think it's the legacy that all of should remember.
Dr. DYSON: Especially during this 2008 political campaign, when it seems that there are record numbers of people at least listening to that message.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Brenda.
BRENDA: Thank you. Bye.
CONAN: So long.
Lets go now to - this is Leon(ph), Leon with us from Athens in Ohio.
LEON (Caller): Hello, Neal and Dr. Dyson. I really appreciate you're taking my call. I am 54, be 55 this year and I remember Dr. King's death. My mother was - and father both were from Mississippi. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and I'll never forget that day how it got dark early.
And my father had gotten home early from work and he was eating his dinner. And I'll never forget his silent tears falling into his plate. I didn't know what had happened. Our radio station came on and report the news once again. And you have to remember. He was also not only one of our first heroes. He was one of our first video heroes, television heroes. That's when television was playing an important role in linking African-Americans with - in the south, with Africans-Americans in the north and in the east.
So, it was really important. I mean, I got to watch him grow up and his death. I'll never forget it, it's almost like you lose a relative. To me, I'm African-American and I'm also a pastor of the local church, and so, his life and his death, his death especially, impacted me. And especially when it comes to voting this Dr. Dyson has just spoke about a few minutes ago. But it was like losing a family member.
For my mother who got an 8th-grade education, it was devastating to her. For my father who had been a war veteran of the Korean War, and he had - when he learn the news, he couldn't - it was as if certain African-Americans weren't allowed to even vent out a little. Thus, you have riots and things of that nature.
But having said that, I know what the focus of the program is today. I appreciate that, especially from NPR. but I would love to hear Dr. Dyson compare some of the messages and themes of Dr. King to those of Jeremiah Wright. I think people are - in this hour, were not recognizing the black church - the ignorance about the black church nationally is showing itself. The ignorance about how black patriotism is manifest is showing itself. I love to have Dr. Dyson speak to that.
Dr. DYSON: Yes, sir. Well, thank you so much, first of all, for your remembrances of Dr. King and for the extraordinary character and timbre of those memories because they speak about a personal investment that is so moving. Yet, there's no question that if there were YouTube - if YouTube existed when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to black churches, he would be considered every bit as controversial as Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
First of all, your point is exactly right that there is a profound and pervasive ignorance about the black church. People said, well, we didn't know when we saw Jeremiah Wright on the YouTube that black people do that in their churches, that they get political.
It's not about the gospel. It's not about Holy Ghost. it's not about theological dispensation or grace. It's about politics. Then, you say, well, white brothers and sisters, what you don't understand is the racism of the white church led to the founding of the black church. If it were not for white churches subordinating theology to their politics, then the black church and the white church would never have split. They would have never been but one church. But because white brothers and sisters, who were Christian, refused to accommodate through their own theology and their sanctuaries, black believers, they had to jettison from - you know, they were jettisoned from the white church. They left the white church. They started their own.
And so, now that they've left, you know, a couple of 103 years ago, they started they own traditions. And they speak freely and bravely and courageously about the conditions of their birth. And the birth of the black church was in racism. And the birth of the black church was in politics - so black preachers necessarily and understandably of the prophetic mode.
Now, that's not a majority tradition within an African-American culture. Let me not lie that it's not the major religious tradition within black culture, but it is the most significant one and it's the most influential one. It's the one out of which Martin Luther King Jr. sprang.
Henry Highland Garnet, Reverdy Ransom were among the many ministers - Frederick Douglass, even Booker T. Washington was a minister. But they came out a tradition that said we must speak truth to power. We must represent the interest of African-American people. Black churches are not only for speaking the gospel. They're for organizing education. They're for organizing unions. They're for teaching people about their history. They're about educating human beings. It's a social center as well as a gathering place to articulate the grievances of black existence and its glories as well.
So when you understand it that way, you will put Jeremiah Wright into context. Listen to these. Martin Luther King Jr. said to a black church a couple of months before he died, America is the greatest war criminal in the world. We have committed more war crimes than any of the nation.
He also said at one point, I will refuse to tell young black men to put down their guns and their weaponry without speaking to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, America.
He also said that I don't know about you, but I don't want to be on the reservation. I've been on the reservation too long, and America would treat us like they've treated the Japanese and put us in concentration camps.
And finally, he said that America began in genocide. Now, if YouTube were around, people would say, how dare you say these dastardly things about the American government? How dare you be anti-patriotic an un-American? And yet, because he loved the country enough, he told the truth.
Prophetic anger is central to the black church tradition of rebelling against social evils manifest at the level of racism. And Jeremiah Wright is part and parcel, woof and warp of that tradition. He extends that tradition, and I think you cannot extract a person's comments out of context. You've got to put them into their broader context and understand what his sermon was about, what black preaching has done for black America, and how the prophetic black leader has been the freest black person in America. Why? Because he, mostly - was he a patriarchal project - was not behold into white money. The black minister was being paid by black people.
Therefore, the black minister could afford to say stuff that a lot of other black people felt but could never say. The caller said his father couldn't even grieve. When Joe Louis used to beat up on white opponents, many black people weren't even allowed the opportunity to celebrate publicly, lest their glee be taken as a denunciation of white identity. The Blackpool Pit was the place where grief and glory and anger and frustration could be articulated.
Let me end by saying this: No prophet, whether Jeremiah in the Bible or Jeremiah Wright, Amos, Hosea, are very, you know, balanced people in terms of, you know, of their language. They are hyperbolic. They are rhetorically gifted in a way to indict the prevailing forms of oppression.
Their purpose on life and in their congregations is to remind people of what does say of the Lord. And if you think Jeremiah Wright was rough, go back and read the Bible. Oh, God will pull down your nation, tear it up, read the psalms, which are the gangster rap of their time. Oh, my Lord, destroy my enemies, kill their mothers, and by the way, bless me too.
This is not a pretty affair. So people unfamiliar with prophetic tradition make those statements. I think Jeremiah Wright represents the heart of that tradition and so does, by the way, Martin Luther King Jr.
CONAN: And Leon(ph), thanks very much for the call…
LEON: Thank you.
CONAN: Part of the discussion after Reverend Wright's comments was - the publicity around Reverend Wright's comment was, in fact, whether this language of liberation derived from the 1960s was still appropriate, or as Senator Obama said in his response whether it argued that progress had not - there had been no progress. And that, without hearing that speech - which was, of course, delivered after you finished this book - that's a subject you go into some detail about.
Mr. DYSON: Oh, no question. I think that - look, Barack Obama is an extraordinary genius as a presidential candidate. Jeremiah Wright is a rhetorical genius as a prophet. The job descriptions are different. It is Jeremiah Wright's job to prophesy to the president. Should Barack Obama become president, Barack Obama will have to be prophesied, too, as well from the black church tradition. He can not be exempt or exonerated from that criticism.
However, on the other hand, people cannot expect, especially black people, that Barack Obama will be a prophet. Barack Obama is a presidential candidate for the United States of America, which means the entire nation. So, in his mind, the repudiation of the pro-American feeling that he saw rampant in that sermon had to be publicly distanced, at least from his own campaign, because he is attempting to do something very particular and specific.
So there's no hypocrisy in acknowledging that as a presidential candidate, he has to uphold one vision, and as a prophet, Jeremiah Wright has to uphold another. But at the end of the day, I think we have to understand that Barack Obama is walking a very tight, tight rope, a very tensed tight rope of race and consideration of color in America. On the one hand, a lot black people were saying he weren't black enough because his father was African. Go figure that out…
CONAN: …or his mother was white.
Mr. DYSON: …and his mother is white, and his mother is white. But I'm saying he's still - his daddy - half of is from Africa. A lot of people - you look at me, I'm a very - what they say in black community is light-skinned brother. Somebody white has been in my tree genetically a couple, you know, three generations ago.
So the point is that that is a norm for black people. There's always been interracial mixing at a certain level. But I think the argument was because black people weren't familiar with him, didn't know him - which by the way, proves that black people won't just vote for a person because they're black. They had to learn Barack Obama, know who he was, and ultimately endorse him.
So my point simply is this: That there are different job descriptions. He was being beat upon for not being black enough, and then some say he's too black. He did a tremendous thing in that race speech. He said, look, there is tremendous anger from the past. We've got to go forward.
CONAN: Michael Eric Dyson. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can get another caller in. This Ivy(ph). Ivy, with us from Colorado.
IVY (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
IVY: Well, what I would like to say is I'm mixed and I had the wonderful experience of being empowered by Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King when I was in North Louisiana…
Mr. DYSON: Beautiful.
IVY: …and particularly after we were talking about the Garrison research that was - I was 15 years old when we were talking about Garrison and what might have happened to Kennedy. And when Martin Luther King was assassinated - excuse me…
Mr. DYSON: Yes, ma'am.
IVY: …it was like we lost our messenger. And then, what happened is we started looking at color and we started looking at color of skin rather than color of heart. So…
Mr. DYSON: Yes, ma'am.
IVY: …he made a great impact on my life being from the south, and I'm privileged to be from the south because we have a history of standing up who - what we are for. George Bush does not represent that, nor does Cheney. It was genocide of the south. They came through the oil and gas industry.
I thank Barack Obama for, at least, presenting this issue. If Hillary Clinton wants to be a speaker for women then she must speak for our diversity and the abuse that we have experienced from the patriarchy. If you have any questions, I would appreciate it.
CONAN: Okay. We just have a few seconds left, Ivy. I wanted to give Michael Eric Dyson a chance to respond.
Mr. DYSON: Amen. I think that - look, Dr. King's death deeply and profoundly affected her, as you can hear the tears rolling down the cheeks even on the radio. Every time I go back to the Civil Right's Museum, every time - and I was just there on Monday - tears come to my eyes to think about this is sacred ground, this is sacred space. This is where the blood of a great prophet mixed with the earth to sprout a million visions of possibility and transformation.
And she's right. We have become fixated and obsessed in our own tribal practices with our petty privileges, and at the same time, we are being invited by Dr. King to move beyond them. And I think Barack Obama represents that, and Hillary Clinton does, too, by the way, to embrace each other as Americans, e pluribus unum, out of many one.
CONAN: Ivy, thanks so much for the call.
CONAN: And Michael Eric Dyson, thanks so much for your time today.
Mr. DYSON: Brother Neal, always great to be here with you, my friend.
CONAN: Michael Eric Dyson's new book "April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America."
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