Dyson on King's Legacy

Forty years ago this week American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on the second-floor balcony of a hotel in Memphis. He was just 39 years old. Just hours earlier King had concluded his final speech by saying, "I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land."

Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University sociology professor, Baptist minister and author of 16 books, uses the anniversary of King's assassination as a springboard for a candid and provocative discussion of the fate of black America in his new book, "April 4, 1968: How Dr. Martin Luther King's Death Changed America."

Dyson, who has also written biographies of Marvin Gaye and rapper Tupac Shakur and was named by Ebony as one of the 100 most influential black Americans, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno about the new book, King's enduring legacy, and whether the celebrated leader's dream for America has come true. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How did this book came about?
Michael Eric Dyson: I knew the 40-year anniversary of Dr. King's death was approaching and wanted to weigh in on its meaning and significance for the American public. I wanted to take a look at how Dr. King's martyrdom has both elevated and distorted his message and track where we were in terms of progress.

So have black Americans made it to the Promised Land, as King hoped and predicted?
Not yet. Middle-class blacks are closer; they are enjoying the fruits of their labors and extraordinary access by virtue of hard work, but one-quarter of African-Americans are still mired in poverty and are closed out of the broader circle of American privilege.

If Dr. King were alive today and were asked to make another speech on race relations, what do you think he would choose as the theme and substance of his speech?
He would first acknowledge the enormous progress that has been made in this country by blacks. But he would also say what he said in the late 1960s, which is that the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act did not and still have not penetrated the lower depths of "negro deprivation," as he called it. He'd argue that the black poor continue to be poor, that economic struggles continue, and that poor black people continue to stand in need of advocacy.

Does King's message still resonate and influence in 2008?
Yes, in many ways. For example, Dr. King's legacy of racial justice and of transcending social and economic limitations of the past and moving forward toward a grand and majestic vision has been invoked by both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But the fact that King's message is being invoked by two presidential candidates 40 years after his death also reflects the failure of America to achieve these goals.

Some have called Senator Obama's recent speech on race the most important one on this topic since King's historic 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. Is that a fair comparison?
These speeches were given in different times. It's like comparing Bill Russell to Michael Jordan. The stakes were much higher during King's time. Obama would be the first to recognize that his speech didn't carry as much weight and authority as Dr. King's historic oration on that legendary day in August. Still, it was a path-clearing, pioneering speech. Rarely has an America political figure, let alone a presidential candidate, been as eloquent or as honest as Obama was in that speech. It was a difficult thing to embrace his past and yet distance himself from some of the rhetoric of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, as well as educate white and black Americans about the nuances, complexities and difficulties of the race issue. It was an extraordinary speech.

Do you think it will have any sort of lasting impact on race relations in this country?
Yes. I believe it will be remembered as a benchmark and watershed moment. People will continue to refer to the speech, to its meaning. It will be an American document of significance than can and will help us.

What was your reaction to Sen. Hillary Clinton's comments in January that King needed Lyndon Johnson to get his civil rights work completed?
I think she was trying to counter the eloquent proclamations of Obama, who celebrated King as a gifted leader able to inspire. She was trying to tell us that it takes more than eloquence and great speaking, that a president must use the office as a bully pulpit to argue his or her case for black people. There's no denying that the Voting Rights Act, and before that the Civil Rights Act, would not have become law unless Johnson championed those pieces of legislation in Congress. But Dr. King created the conditions under which Johnson might act. King forced Johnson to act. They worked together. They forged connections and built coalitions.

Do you remember the day King was shot?
Yes. I was eight years old. My parents were very aware of him, but I hadn't yet heard of him. I was watching television with my father, and the TV news interrupted to announce that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. I was riveted by the report and was instantly converted and decided, beyond my conscious mind, to have a lifelong association with this man. He's the greatest American who ever lived, greater than Lincoln or Jefferson. They held official office, but King was a private citizen who became a spokesman for a group of American people who had been neglected and marginalized, and he leveraged that moral authority to make real change in this country.

What are you hearing from people across the country this week as you discuss your new book and King's legacy?
Some people can't believe it's been 40 years. Some wonder whether we are nearer to the Promised Land or stuck in a racial wilderness? Many people think we are far along the path of reconciliation and justice, while others believe we have a long, long way to go. This anniversary of Dr. King's death is a reminder of the nightmare aspect of the American dream, and it calls attention again to the vulnerable, the locked out.

What are some of the ways in which King's death changed America?
He gave us a language to express our aspirations. He reimagined a new America of black and white and brown and red, together. His death radically altered white America's perception of his life and convinced many to make a real commitment to racial justice. There would be no Barack Obama without King. There would be no Kenneth Chenault [CEO of American Express] without King. There would be no Michael Eric Dyson without King. The fact that I went to Princeton and got a Ph.D. and have taught at such wonderful universities as Georgetown, none of that would have happened without Martin Luther King Jr.