Michael Eric Dyson / Los Angeles Times – 2008-04-10 20:47:42
(April 4, 2008) — On the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, few truths ring louder than this: Barack Obama and Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. express in part the fallen leader’s split mind on race, a division marked by chronology and color.
Before 1965, King was upbeat and bright, his belief in white America’s ability to change by moral suasion resilient and durable. That is the leader we have come to know during annual King commemorations. After 1965, King was darker and angrier; he grew more skeptical about the willingness of America to change without great social coercion.
King’s skepticism and anger were often muted when he spoke to white America, but they routinely resonated in black sanctuaries and meeting halls across the land. Nothing highlights that split — or white America’s ignorance of it and the prophetic black church King inspired — more than recalling King’s post-1965 odyssey, as he grappled bravely with poverty, war and entrenched racism. That is the King who emerges as we recall the meaning of his death.
After the grand victories of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, King turned his attention to poverty, economic injustice and class inequality. King argued that those “legislative and judicial victories did very little to improve” Northern ghettos or to “penetrate the lower depths of Negro deprivation.”
In a frank assessment of the civil rights movement, King said the changes that came about from 1955 to 1965 “were at best surface changes” that were “limited mainly to the Negro middle class.” In seeking to end black poverty, King told his staff in 1966 that blacks “are now making demands that will cost the nation something. … You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then.”
King’s conclusion? “There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” He didn’t say this in the mainstream but to his black colleagues.
Similarly, although King spoke famously against the Vietnam War before a largely white audience at Riverside Church in New York in 1967, exactly a year before he died, he reserved some of his strongest antiwar language for his sermons before black congregations.
In his own pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, two months before his death, King raged against America’s “bitter, colossal contest for supremacy.” He argued that God “didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world today,” preaching that “we are criminals in that war” and that we “have committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world.”
King insisted that God “has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, ‘Don’t play with me, Israel. Don’t play with me, Babylon. Be still and know that I’m God. And if you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power.’ ”
Perhaps nothing might surprise — or shock — white Americans more than to discover that King said in 1967: “I am sorry to have to say that the vast majority of white Americans are racist, either consciously or unconsciously.” In a sermon to his congregation in 1968, King openly questioned whether blacks should celebrate the nation’s 1976 bicentennial. “You know why?” King asked. “Because it [the Declaration of Independence] has never had any real meaning in terms of implementation in our lives.”
In the same year, King bitterly suggested that black folk couldn’t trust America, comparing blacks to the Japanese who had been interred in concentration camps during World War II. “And you know what, a nation that put as many Japanese in a concentration camp as they did in the ’40s … will put black people in a concentration camp.
And I’m not interested in being in any concentration camp. I been on the reservation too long now.” Earlier, King had written that America “was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race.”
Such quotes may lead some to wrongly see King as anti- white and anti-American, a minister who allowed politics to trump religion in his pulpit, just as some see Wright now. Or they might say that King 40 years ago had better reason for bitterness than Wright in the enlightened 21st century. But that would put a fine point on arguable gains, and it would reveal a deep unfamiliarity with the history of the black Christian church.
The black prophetic church was born because of the racist politics of the white church. Only when the white church rejected its own theology of love and embraced white supremacy did black folk leave to praise God in their own sanctuaries, on their own terms. Insurgent slave ministers such as Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner hatched revolts against slave masters. Harriet Tubman was inspired by black religious belief to lead hundreds of black souls out of slavery. For many blacks, religion and social rebellion went hand in hand. They still do.
For most of our history, the black pulpit has been the freest place for black people. It is in the black church that blacks gathered to enhance social networks, gain education, wage social struggle — and express the grief and glory of black existence. The preacher was one of the few black figures not captive to white interests or bound by white money.
Because black folk paid his salary, he was free to speak his mind and that of his congregation. The preacher often said things that most black folk believed but were afraid to say. He used his eloquence and erudition to defend the vulnerable and assail the powerful.
King extended that prophetic tradition, which includes vigorous self-criticism as well — especially sharp words against the otherworldliness that grips some churches. In 1967, King said that too many black churches were “so absorbed in a future good ‘over yonder’ that they condition their members to adjust to the present evils ‘over here.’ ” Two months before his death, King chided black preachers for standing “in the midst of the poverty of our own members” and mouthing “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”
King struck fiercely at the ugly, self-serving practices of some black ministers when he claimed that they were “more concerned about the size of the wheelbase on our automobiles, and the amount of money we get in our anniversaries, than … about the problems of the people who made it possible for us to get these things.”
Obama has seized on the early King to remind Americans about what we can achieve when we allow our imaginations to soar high as we dream big. Wright has taken after the later King, who uttered prophetic truths that are easily caricatured when snatched from their religious and racial context.
What united King in his early and later periods is the incurable love that fueled his hopefulness and rage. As King’s example proves, as we dream, we must remember the poor and vulnerable who live a nightmare. And as we strike out in prophetic anger against injustice, love must cushion even our hardest blows.
Michael Eric Dyson is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and the author of 16 books, including the just-published “April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America.”
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