From: "Sadanand, Nanjundiah (Physics)"
No Small Dreams
By Michael Eric Dyson, special to Britannica.com, 17 January 2000
As a literary figure, Martin Luther King, Jr., stands as possibly the greatest American rhetorician of the 20th century. As a citizen, his singular contributions to the legacy of American democracy helped this nation realize its political and moral aspirations to an arguably greater extent than any other figure. And while much of the literature about King portrays him as a dreamer intent on rhapsodically transforming America through eloquent speech and writing, in reality he was much more. He was a visionary activist whose disturbing words and courageous deeds cost him his life. It is unfortunate that we have largely frozen King in his "I Have a Dream" stage while neglecting the radical evolution of his later years. Perhaps by revisiting the impressive body of literature King left behind we can come to a deeper understanding of his thoughts and his abiding legacy.
One of the more misunderstood and underappreciated features of King's mature thought is his skepticism about the earlier methods of social change that he advocated. For the first several years of his career, King was quite optimistic about the possibility that racial inequality could be solved through black struggle and white good will. In The Preacher King, Richard Lischer captures the civil rights leader's early views in a revealing quotation by King:
"Maybe God has called us here to this hour. Not merely to free ourselves but to free all of our white brothers and save the soul of this nation--We will not ever allow this struggle to become so polarized that it becomes a struggle between black men and white men. We must see the tension in this nation between injustice and justice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness."
But during the last three years of his life, King questioned his own understanding of race relations. As King told journalist David Halberstam, "For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you've got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values." King also told Halberstam something that he argued in his last book, Trumpet of Conscience: that "most Americans are unconscious racists." For King, this recognition was not a source of bitterness but a reason to revise his strategy. If one believed that whites basically desired to do the right thing, then a little moral persuasion was sufficient. But if one believed that whites had to be made to behave in the right way, one had to employ substantially more than moral reasoning.
King's later views on racism were shaped by his move into northern communities in cities like Chicago. King's open housing marches in Chicago were greeted with what he characterized as the most "hostile and hateful" demonstration of white racism he had ever witnessed, more violent even than Selma or Birmingham. David Garrow, in his book, Bearing the Cross, quotes King as saying that northern whites were practicing "psychological and spiritual genocide," which was a stunning about-face on his earlier beliefs in the inherent goodness of whites. In Chicago, King openly admitted "I'm tired of marching for something that should have been mine at birth," and he lamented the loss of America's will to right its wrongs. In his book Why We Can't Wait (1964), King made a remarkable statement:
"Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the 16th century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population."
This is not the Martin Luther King, Jr., who is sentimentalized during each holiday celebration. This is certainly not the portrait of King painted by fast-food advertisements that encourage us to recall a man more interested in dreaming than doing, more interested in keeping the peace than bringing a sword.
If King's later views on persistent, deeply entrenched racism capture his radical legacy, his views on economic inequality are equally challenging. By 1964, King had reached the conclusion that blacks faced "basic social and economic problems that require political reform." But the vicious nature of northern ghetto poverty in particular convinced King that the best hope for America was the redistribution of wealth. In his 1967 presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), entitled "The President's Address to the Tenth Anniversary Convention" (included in Testament of Hope, a collection of King's speeches edited by James Washington), King urged his colleagues to fight the problems of the ghetto by organizing their economic and political power. King implored his organization to develop a program that would compel the nation to have a guaranteed annual income and full employment, thus abolishing poverty, and he preached that "the Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society." When such a question was raised, one was really "raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth," and thus, one was "question[ing] the capitalistic economy." These words mark a profound transformation in King's thinking.
While King's radical views on racism and economic inequality were disturbing to many, his views on the Vietnam War were virtually unconscionable to millions of Americans. Although King was initially hesitant about jumping into the fray, his strong antiwar activism proved just how morally and ideologically independent he was. According to Adam Fairclough's book, To Redeem the Soul of America, by 1965 King had concluded that America's policy on Vietnam had been, since 1945, "morally and politically wrong." Despite his views, King's public criticism of the war was hampered by two factors. First, his evolving radicalism called for an independence from mainstream politics that the bulk of his followers were unlikely to embrace. Second, his open criticism of foreign policy would alienate officials of the federal government on whom blacks depended to protect and extend their civil rights. This double-bind temporarily silenced King's opposition to the war and made it nearly impossible for him to generate sympathy for antiwar activities in broad segments of the civil rights community, including his own Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
By 1967, King could no longer remain silent about Vietnam. His most famous statement of conscientious objection to the war was entitled A Time to Break Silence. That speech, contained in A Testament of Hope, was delivered at New York's famed Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, exactly a year before his assassination. After noting the difficulty of "opposing [the] government's policy, especially in a time of war," King argued that Vietnam was stealing precious resources from domestic battles against economic suffering and contended that the "Vietnam War [was] an enemy of the poor."
King's assault on America as the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" elicited a predictably furious reaction from the White House. The news media was even harsher. In Symbols, the News Magazines and Martin Luther King, Richard Lentz notes that Time magazine had, early in King's opposition to the war, characterized him as a "drawling bumpkin, so ignorant that he had not read a newspaper in years, who had wandered out of his native haunts and away from his natural calling." Newsweek columnist Kenneth Crawford attacked King for his "demagoguery" and "reckless distortions of the facts." The Washington Post said that King's Riverside speech was a "grave injury" to the civil rights struggle and that King had "diminished his usefulness to this cause, to his country, and to his people." The New York Times editorialized that King's speech was a "fusing of two public problems that are distinct and separate" and that King had done a "disservice to both."
Of course, King's views would eventually win the day. But King's willingness to risk his reputation within the civil rights community attests to his notable courage and his commitment to principles of justice and nonviolence. He refused to silence his conscience for the sake of gaining in the polls or winning broader popularity. In fact, as David Levering Lewis points out in King: A Critical Biography, in 1967, for the first time in nearly a decade, King's name was left off the Gallup Poll's list of the 10 most admired Americans.
It is easy to forget that King was only 39 years of age when he died. That he helped spark a racial revolution in American society before his assassination in Memphis is a testament to the power of his vision and the grandeur of his words. Not long before he died, King described how he would like to be remembered:
"I'd like someone to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I'd like somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. l want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe the naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity."
Michael Eric Dyson is an author and a professor of religious studies at DePaul University. His books include, among others, the recently released I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr., Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line, and Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X.