Friday, March 30, 2018

On Good Friday: listen to a martyr for hope and justice


Next Wednesday will be the 50th anniversary of the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.was killed by a racist white sniper in Memphis.

Ten years ago, for the 40th anniversary, Michael Eric Dyson offered a little book: April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Death and How it Changed America. On this Good Friday, when Christians remember innocent death applauded by crowds and inflicted by imperial power, when we live under a regime that incites cruelty and hate all around, much of Dyson's meditation on King's death seems on point.

You cannot hear the name Martin Luther King, Jr., and not think of death. You might hear the words "I have a dream," but they will doubtlessly only serve to underscore an image of a simple motel balcony, a large man made small, a pool of blood. For as famous as he may have been in life it is, and was, death that ultimately defined him. Born into a people whose main solace was Christianity's Promised Land awaiting them after the sufferings of this world, King took on the power of his race's presumed destiny and found in himself the defiance necessary to spark change. He ate, drank, and slept death. He danced with it, he preached it, he feared it, and he stared it down. He looked for ways to lay it aside, this burden of his own mortality, but ultimately knew that his unwavering insistence on a nonviolent end to the mistreatment of his people could only end violently.

... King struggled constantly between bravery and the specter of breakdown. His public proclamations of fearlessness were both truthful and strategic. They were aimed at reinforcing troops in the racial trenches. But in private, blue moods sometimes sucked his spirit dry. There were times when King was undaunted by the prospect of death, addressing it with fairly objective calculation. At other times he was ambushed by the fear and world-weariness known only to those who've been fiendishly chased by government officials, fellow citizens, and hate groups. ...

... it is nearly miraculous that King managed to keep death in a philosophical headlock as often as he did. Sure, he sometimes cried uncle in private and was bulldozed by impenetrable despondency. But King rallied to declare in public what he knew to be true, both despite and because of his suffering. King's plight made this clear: if sleep is the cousin of death, then depression is its little brother. His depressions often felt like death only slightly delayed. ...

... King's hope flashed even as he said that the nation's political drift led to spiritual death. If he had given up on the American dream he would have stopped being disappointed in white America. King's bitter indictment of the country's unconscious racism grew from his lover's quarrel with America. ... white privilege had to die for black equality to be born ...

Dyson's strange and wonderful book is not to be missed, only slightly dated because many the statistics he cites describing the black condition in this country have only grown more unequal over the last ten years. His meandering assessments of black leaders after King remain insightful, especially his thoughts on the merits and demerits of the charismatic style in figures including Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Barack Obama. He concludes with an imaginary interview with King on his 80th birthday in which King tries to shatter taboos on (black) leaders seeking professional help with their inevitable personal anxieties and depressions.

Best of all, this book is available as an audiobook, read by the author. Dyson is gifted mimic; his recitation of King's own words come across as the preacher himself. We've heard that tenor and cadence in recordings; listen to it again from Dyson.

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