Poverty. War. Bigotry.
Those are the tenacious triplets of evil the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the 21st century would be attacking on moral grounds, the renowned scholar and cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson said in a lecture on September 15.
“King’s magnificent obsession was for the poor,’’ said Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, minister, radio host, and author of April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America.
Today, the rest of the nation is obsessed with demonizing the poor, he said. “Black and white, red, brown and yellow, we have not much sympathy for poor people.’’
Dyson delivered the Rudolf G. Schade Lecture, “Dr. King for the 21st Century,” to an audience of more than 500 at Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel. Dyson’s talk also was part of the Democracy Forum, a series of lectures and events that explore democracy and civic engagement.
He spoke for nearly 90 minutes in a display of erudition and humor, current events and history. His presentation was part speech, part sermon, part performance art. One moment he was quoting Reinhold Niebuhr, the next he was breaking into song, singing snatches of Nat King Cole, Michael Jackson and Bobby Blue Bland.
“Ain’t no love in the heart of the city.’’
Audience members responded with spontaneous murmurs and shouts of approval, akin to a Baptist church service. “Preach brother,” a woman shouted.
Dyson said the poor, whether they live in the tenements of the West Side of Chicago or in the hills and hollows of Kentucky, are viewed and treated in 21st century America with “antipathy and hostility,’’ a fact “King would find murderous.’’
“King was making democracy better,’’ Dyson said. “He wasn’t just helping black folk. He was helping America.’’
The impulse for war has gone unchecked
King, Dyson said, was “one of the greatest Americans in the history of the land’’ and would undoubtedly applaud and celebrate the rise of Barack Obama, America’s first black president.
But at the same time he would challenge and criticize him.
“King for the 21st century,’’ he said, “would have to challenge in a very fundamental sense the impulse for war that has gone unchecked.’’
Dyson said it is “real tricky’’ to try to compare King the prophet to Obama the president. The Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr. has to be credited for opening the door for Barack Obama. It was Jackson’s two trail-blazing presidential campaigns in the 1980s that “made Obama possible,” he said.
Jackson, he said, “carried post-King leadership for 40 years,’’ from the death of the prophet to the election of the president.
Dyson said Obama, “the most powerful man in the world,’’ is limited and not free to talk about race because it might upset white America.
“Because of his limitations, he is severely underrepresenting a segment of America that happens to be black,’’ he said. “There is 16.7 percent black unemployment. Say something. Speak up on that. You ain’t got to make it a black thing. Make it an American thing; 16.7 percent black unemployment is an American problem.’’
At the end, Dyson received a standing ovation from the Hammerschmidt audience.
Earlier, Dyson met with a group of students, including Evan Cunningham, president of the Black Student Union.
Cunningham told Dyson that the college administration is pushing hard to increase diversity on campus. “But the big problem is student apathy,’’ he said. “Kids just go to class and back to their dorms. How do we engage our peers and make a difference in our community?’’
Apathy, “that’s a problem everywhere,’’ Dyson said, reminding the students that there “weren’t very many people involved in the civil rights movement, not relatively speaking.’’
Dedicated people can make a difference
A small group of dedicated people, he said, can make a huge difference for good or bad.
“Look at how the Tea Party has turned this country upside down,’’ he said. “You’ve got 15 folks with a megaphone.’’
At Hammerschmidt Chapel, Dyson had the mike. He said it might be hard for the young people of today to believe exactly how unpopular King was toward the end of his life. Indeed, it was King’s courageous opposition to the war in Vietnam that made many Americanswhite and black turn against King. Dyson said publishers would not publish his books. Offers to lecture dried up. And for the first time in a decade, King was no longer, according to the Gallup Poll, one of the 10 most admired Americans.
Dyson said King was “seen as a scourge on April 3, 1968’’the day before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to march with impoverished garbage workers. The day after he was killed, Dyson said, “he was seen as a saint.’’
“The sweet sense of martyrdom swept away the malodorous contamination of his critical, moral and political courage,’’ he said.
He asked Obama to show some courage, too.
“Barack Obama stands tall,’’ he said. “He must also stand tall and defend us, as we defend him. All we want is a little bit of love in return.’’