Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. with Michael Eric Dyson

This past Tuesday, NC3 h0sted a zoom event to remember the great work of Martin Luther King Jr. The keynote speaker was Dr. Michael Dyson, who is well-known for his work as an academic, author, minister, and much more.

Dr. Dyson began the session by explaining that Martin Luther King is most known for his “I have a dream” speech, as is often taught to us in schools. But Dr. Dyson further argued that King did much more than that speech in his life battling segregation, and people tend to ignore his aggressive approach to focus on what society believes is his passive belief in a dream.

“Martin Luther King Jr. and the United States of Amnesia” is a title Dr. Dyson focused on during the event in order to explain why Americans seem to forget not only the radical parts of King’s speech and but also to forget the horrors of slavery. “What’s too painful to remember We simply choose to forget.”

Dr. Dyson explains that this type of amnesia is “a reflex against the accumulation of knowledge and that the knowledge we possess must be regulated to deny the legitimate opportunity to engage in serious reflection on our history because it is too painful for us to recall so we seek to deny it.” But we are now in a bitter battle over American democracy, identity, society, and ideals to determine this nation’s future. We have to face our history rather than distorting the memory of it or ignoring it altogether.

Slave owners refused to admit the slaves’ humanity and intelligence and blamed them for being ignorant or dumb. But by restricting the knowledge of slaves, they wrongfully castigated them for lacking the rationality to engage in critical thinking about the world with no way in learning to do so. This was a ploy to control their comprehension so that they wouldn’t realize they were unfairly treated.

That bitter history is often a problem to many people today, and they are re-engaging that war to determine the position of black people in this country. The civil war was about state rights, yes, “but state rights to enslave people,” argues Dr. Dyson, because the southern states relied heavily on slaves for farming, building, etc.

“As we argue against bitter histories, we realize we have created such horror and refuse to own up to our complicity because we are unwilling to do our work now in order to move forward and accept what happened.” Dr. Dyson’s speech expounds on the idea that people believe all is right in the world now and that racism does not exist anymore, but we as a country have a lot more to do. To move on and become better as a nation, we have to accept the truth of our country’s past.

Turning our focus back to MLK himself, he was “born in the midst of serious movement for social justice” where he played an important, but not exclusive, role. It was the calling of God that got him involved, not he himself.

We don’t listen to the whole first speech King gave. We don’t even know how he started with the beginning of Lincoln’s own speech. He wanted America to be as it was on paper, reflecting Lincoln’s gesture to explain the beacon of hope for those in the shackles of slavery. He was far more aggressive than any of us think, even though he did not fight physically. King was about full citizenship rights, public transportation, eating at the counter, voting, treated with respect and decency for all black people.

His dream speech was radical, not about dreaming like we choose to believe, but about engaging and doing. He wanted to cash a check in a country that said they had “insufficient funds.” King knew this to be a lie and refused to believe the nation did not have the rhetorical funds for social justice.

Another thing Dr. Dyson explained was that people tend to combat MLK with the Black Lives Matter movement. However, King supported the movement even while recognizing their different methodology and approach. They were both nonviolent and committed to justice, freedom, and democracy for black people in this nation.

Dr. Dyson went on to explain another thing, that King “wouldn’t criticize young people for their enthusiasm and not criticize the American government who continued to perpetuate inequality in democracy and pursuing a war in Vietnam which had detrimental impacts on the black communities financially.” His last speech, the night he died, implored America to be true to what you said on paper, the great texts written about us to us for us as a people. King called out America and the Vietnam War because it was hurting the country and especially the black communities.

“He’s dead because people hated him because of his commitment to tell and do the truth.” It is safer to think of him as not actually doing anything and just wishing for his dream to come true, which his untimely death made possible. Martin Luther King Jr. was exhausted. He had left his life to begin one that was much harder to live to end social injustice. He “gave his life to make sure America could be the best it can be, that the country can give as much energy to contribute to it.”

Dr. Dyson concluded by saying, “America is a great nation, but not because of its internal majesty alone, but because of the hard work we should be able and willing to do to make.” But to do this, he says we have to be honest with ourselves about the limitations imposed on black people and the horrible police brutality that has never known an end. “Most Americans are unconscious racist- we have not yet taken up the deep invocation of trying to resist white supremacy and social injustice.”