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The Legacy of Dr. King in the 21st Century: Michael Eric Dyson addresses packed house at GVSU

January 20, 2011

Last night Rev. Michael Eric Dyson spoke on the Allendale campus of GVSU as part of the university’s MLK week. Rev. Dyson, who is the author of numerous books on a range of topics dealing with race, culture, gender, philosophy and theology, spoke for over an hour about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Rev. Dyson dazzled the audience with his oratory skills, his use of humor, irony and sarcasm. But Dyson was not on campus to entertain, he was there to shed light on the significance of Dr. King in the 21st Century. Dyson at times demonstrated his analytical skills, his cultural critique and his preaching style as he didn’t hesitate to raise his voice to underscore a point about what Dr. King called this country to become.

Dyson said that the legacy of Dr. King is strong, but it is vulnerable to a lot of misinformation and romance. He is often cited in conservative circles around the quote where people should be judged by the content of their character. A quote, which is often taken out of context from his, I Have a Dream Speech.

Dyson then pointed out that the people who often use the quote act as if all the impediments to racial justice that Civil Rights movement fought against are gone so that all that matters is content of one’s character. These people, who think we live in a post racial era, are the same ones who are critical of race, gender, sexual orientation and other issues of justice, according to Dyson.

Rev. Dyson then pointed out that King believed in the possibility of America, but he never hesitated to challenge America. “Everyone quotes King and wants to attach themselves to King and his Dream. However, few talk about King being a critic of America and his criticism of race, poverty, culture and militarism.”

At the time of the, I Have a Dream speech, Dyson said that Kennedy was a bystander and did not respond to the challenge of the 1963 march on Washington. However, Dyson also pointed out that the March organizers should be scrutinized as well, especially since Black women were not allowed to speak that day.

Dyson talked about King’s improvising at the March on Washington much in the same way that a jazz player improvises. However, Dyson points out that King most likely improvised in his speech because Mahalia Jackson from the stage said, “Tell them about the dream.” King did and appealed to America to fulfill its rhetoric about democracy and equality.

Dyson went on to say that in addition to mis-use of Dr. King there are people who continue to romanticize about the history of this country. He referred to the recent GOP reading of the US Constitution, where they omitted the parts about Blacks being referred to as three-fifths human. Dyson also mentioned the effort to remove the word “nigger” from Mark Twain’s the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Dyson admonished the audience to “Leave it in so that teachers will have to talk about race and racism and this history.”

The Right,” Dyson said, “wants to trash King, but they fail to acknowledge that the government was hounding him constantly with wire taps, threats, and character assassination.” Dyson said that King loved America, but that doesn’t mean you can’t criticize something you love.

The speaker went on to say that the reason why some sectors despise King is because he was dangerous. He was dangerous, according to Dyson, because he put a “floodlight on the problems of America and people then wanted to blame him for shinning the light on the underside of this country.”

Dyson talked about King’s position on Vietnam, a position that was criticized by many in the civil rights community. King challenged the rich and the economic system that reduced millions to poverty. These criticisms made up what King called the “evil triplets” of racism, militarism and economic injustice.

King was not a perfect person, but this culture wants to hold Black men to a different standard, according to Rev. Dyson. He gives the example of Michael Vick the NFL quarterback who served time in prison for his participation in dog fighting. Dyson points out that dog fighting is part of the White southern culture in this country, but one rarely hears that point. He then mentions that TV pundit Tucker Carlson said that Vick should have been executed for what he did to dogs. Dyson responded, “If this is what you think, then what do you think that Black people should do to the White people who have brutalized them for so long?”

Dyson then spoke a bit about President Barack Obama and how people want to compare the two men. Rev. Dyson said, “Obama is Pharoah, not Moses!” He qualified his statement by saying that the Obama administration has deported more people than any other President, that unemployment remains high and that he has escalated the war in Afghanistan and the US military budget.

Dyson acknowledged that Obama has been under attack from the Right, but that this is no excuse to neglect his base. He said that Obama takes Black people for granted, like every Democratic President before him and points out that Obama didn’t go to UN conference on Racism, hasn’t madding funding for African nations a priority, or appointing Blacks to his cabinet.

Rev. Dyson concluded his remarks by stating that we have to extend the legacy of Dr. King. We need to use the same floodlights to expose the problems of class in this country and the realities of working people. He said, “we need to defend the rights of “our LGBT brothers & sister against the hate and discrimination they face on a daily basis.” Dyson said we need to extend the legacy of Dr. King and speak out about ageism, and made the point that instead of dissin’ on Black youth for Rap music “let’s deal with the conditions that young people live in and maybe they will stop using the lyrics they use.” Lastly, he said let’s extend King’s legacy and challenge the misogyny and patriarchy in our society. “Let’s acknowledge and lift up the multitude of women who have and continue to be at the forefront of social justice movements in this country.”



9 Comments leave one →
  1. ben permalink
    January 20, 2011 9:11 pm

    Defending Michael Vick totally invalidates anything he says.

  2. Jeff Smith permalink*
    January 20, 2011 9:48 pm

    Ben, Dyson wasn’t defending Vick, he said that what he did to dogs was wrong. What he was saying is that people like Tucker Carlson who said Vick should be executed were not called out on his comment and it shows there is a double standard for Black men.

  3. ben permalink
    January 20, 2011 11:08 pm

    I read the article , but I feel playing the race card arguement with vick is wrong. I see it as a hideous crime that some millionare did for kicks. It doesn’t further the cause when someone uses the vick example.

  4. Jeff Smith permalink*
    January 21, 2011 1:10 am

    The race card? Are you kidding me? Have you ever read any of Michael Eric Dyson’s books or seen him speak? This guy gets it and makes the links between all kinds of injustice. He said that the jail time that Vivk did was justifiable, because these were awful crimes. The point he was making was that if Tucker Carlson is asking for the death penalty for Vick because he made money off of dog fighting, what should be the crime of enslaving hundreds of thousands of people? How many slave owners or slave masters did jail time for their crimes? NONE!

  5. ben permalink
    January 21, 2011 8:15 am

    Michael Vick owned 60 dogs for his dogfighting operation.He was heavily involved and a bigplayer in the dog torture game.

    The way alot of these dogs get trained is by throwing some scrawny mutt in with the pitbull and the pitbull rips it to shreds.

  6. Jeff Smith permalink*
    January 21, 2011 11:36 am

    Ben, I am fully aware of what Vick did to dogs and it disgusts me. I am a dog person and will not tolerate anyone abusing or torturing dogs. Vick was caught and punished as he should have been, but the point that Dyson was making is that when White society abuses Black people the same outrage does not exist. There is a huge double standard.

  7. Micah permalink
    January 21, 2011 4:17 pm

    The point about Michael Vick is a minor one. What’s more important is Dyson’s efforts to reclaim the true historical King, which he does incredibly in the book pictured in the post, “I May Not Get There With You.” The MLK we get in that book is not the rosy, can’t-we-all-just-get-along MLK that we hear about every year on King Day. The portrait Dyson paints includes King the critic of capitalism, the fighter of imperialism and war (and not just the war in Vietnam), the activist with a deep sense of existential dread that racism would never be overcome; it also brings down from his superhuman pedestal, as it includes his very serious faults, like his infidelity and the partial plagiarizing of his doctoral thesis. Dyson claims that MLK was the greatest American in our country’s history, and after reading “I May Not Get There With You,” it’s hard to argue with him. I highly recommend the book.

    That said, Dyson does sometimes goes off the deep end when defending African American celebrities–I saw him speak in Chicago last year and he gave a partial defense of Kanye West’s interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards. Whether or not Kanye was right, or whether or not Michael Vick has been unfairly vilified, who cares? Why is Dyson talking about these foolish celebrities who are hopping on awards ceremony stages or viciously fighting dogs? The material facts of racial inequality haven’t improved much since King’s day, and I’d much rather Dyson use his public platform to talk about housing segregation and health care disparities rather than millionaire rappers and quarterbacks.

  8. Roger Becan permalink
    January 22, 2011 5:18 pm

    “Dyson said that the legacy of Dr. King is strong, but it is vulnerable to a lot of misinformation and romance. He is often cited in conservative circles around the quote where people should be judged by the content of their character. A quote, which is often taken out of context from his, I Have a Dream Speech.”

    Yeah, because he really meant to look at skin color and act accordingly, right?

    No wonder some dont like that because to the political left, character is a the bottom of the list of things to judge people on. It makes it hard to just do whatever you want.

  9. Jeff Smith permalink*
    January 23, 2011 6:57 pm

    Roger, if you actually read or listen to the speech what Kings meant was that once America overcomes racial injustice we can then just look at people based on the content of their character……that was part of his “Dream.” However, since institutional racism still exists, which judges people based on the “color of their skin” it is dishonest for people to lift that line from King’s speech to justify their own policies.

    And what do you mean when you say that political left? who doesn’t value personal character?

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