Michael Eric Dyson: Right. Well, there’s no question that the negatives associated with Rev. Jesse Jackson, with Rev. Al Sharpton, are so much higher than those associated now with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. but the irony of course is that when he lived the negatives associated with Dr. King were huge. Now he was a foul stench in the nostrils of mainstream America. He was a pariah to mainstream white America but once he was murdered the sweet scent of martyrdom swept away all of the foul smell of Dr. King’s social and moral crusades. So now he’s been elevated and the danger in that of course is that all the stuff that was said about Dr. King that’s negative have- has been airbrushed out of his iconography and what remains is the unblemished portrait of a man who was perfect in all ways. Well, if he’s so perfect and beloved why was he murdered not even 40 years ago and why is it that America continues to fail to both embody his ideals and to employ them and to fulfill the dream he had
about America being fair and equal and just for all people regardless of color or race or skin or national origin and he might have added I think sexual origin, sexual orientation and the like? So when you think about that and you think about where King is and was and now how he’s being celebrated, you see there’s a lot of manipulation and distortion going on and everything negative that was said about Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton was said about Dr. King. Oh, you’re camera hungry. All you’re interested in is seeing your names in light. The younger people in SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, were hard on Dr. King, young black people for the most part, but in a racial coalition of especially blacks and Jews, but the young people were hard on calling him the Lord behind his back. The Lord is here, the Lord, Martin Luther King Jr., yeah. Yeah, he wants all the camera time. We do all the hard work and he comes in and he takes the glory for what we do. King of course was enormously guilty and guilt stricken I should say as a result of being featured as the central leader of African American social quests and black freedom pursuits, but at the same time he was still highly elevated and celebrated and there was a lot of resentment among the rank and file workers who were out there doing a lot of the hard work in SNCC and other places. So all the bad stuff said about Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton was said about King, that he was in it for the money, that he didn’t want human rights, he wanted civil rights, and civil rights were against the best interests of the nation. So all the malarky that is said about Jackson and about Sharpton was certainly said about King and we tend to forget that. So the negatives that King- the negatives--excuse me--that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton now endure must be put in context, and when we do that we’ll see yeah, the same stuff was said about King, the same kind of beliefs people had. If you read the newspapers, before he was martyred and before he was murdered they doubted what Dr. King was doing. They were highly critical of him for his
opposition to the war in Viet Nam. Major papers, the Washington Post, the New York Times, major magazines, Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report all were relatively critical of Dr. King and many black leaders turned against him. Roy Wilkins from the NAACP turned against him, criticized Dr. King for his criticism of the war in Viet Nam. So did the National Urban League’s Whitney Young. Many people felt that Dr. King was not on the right path and was doing a great disservice and damage to the black freedom struggle. So when I think about all of that I think that Rev. Jackson and Rev. Sharpton are to be applauded for the durability that they’ve showed and displayed and for working so long. Dr. King had a career- a vocation of about— What? Twelve years? Jesse Jackson’s been on the battlefield so to speak for 40 years. That’s enormously important and striking and we have to give credit where credit is due. Barack Obama is a different kind of figure. Barack Obama is not a prophet but a politician and a presidential candidate so Barack Obama can’t do the same things that Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton does- do. Those gentlemen do different things because they are prophets, what dost sayeth the Lord. They speak out against the inequalities that prevail. Presidential candidates, as Barack Obama himself have said, respond to the demand of agitators for change so the change comes he said from the bottom up, not from the top down. He responded that way when he was asked by a reporter, Wolf Blitzer on CNN, why Martin Luther King Jr. would endorse your candidacy. He said he wouldn’t, Mr. Obama. He said, “Martin Luther King Jr. would get the American people to hold me accountable as President,” and that’s an enormously important thing. So there would be no Barack Obama without a Jesse Jackson. Jesse Jackson had to be rough and brutal, kicking down the door so that Barack Obama could walk through it gracefully, with aplomb and a debonair style and be able to articulate calmly and reasonably what he believes. The reason he’s able to be that calm and reasonable is because Jesse Jackson had to be loud and insistent upon America grappling with some of the serious and systemic social ills that the society had yet to overcome.
Recorded on: May 16 2008