After 1965, the civil rights leader grew angrier
over America's unwillingness to change.
By Michael Eric Dyson
April 4, 2008
ON THE 40TH ANNIVERSARY of Martin Luther King Jr.'s
death, few truths ring louder than this: Barack Obama
and Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. express in part the fallen
leader's split mind on race, a division marked by
chronology and color.
Before 1965, King was upbeat and bright, his belief in
white America's ability to change by moral suasion
resilient and durable. That is the leader we have come
to know during annual King commemorations. After 1965,
King was darker and angrier; he grew more skeptical
about the willingness of America to change without great
King's skepticism and anger were often muted when he
spoke to white America, but they routinely resonated in
black sanctuaries and meeting halls across the land.
Nothing highlights that split -- or white America's
ignorance of it and the prophetic black church King
inspired -- more than recalling King's post-1965
odyssey, as he grappled bravely with poverty, war and
entrenched racism. That is the King who emerges as we
recall the meaning of his death. After the grand
victories of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965
Voting Rights Act, King turned his attention to poverty,
economic injustice and class inequality. King argued
that those "legislative and judicial victories did very
little to improve" Northern ghettos or to "penetrate the
lower depths of Negro deprivation." In a frank
assessment of the civil rights movement, King said the
changes that came about from 1955 to 1965 "were at best
surface changes" that were "limited mainly to the Negro
middle class." In seeking to end black poverty, King
told his staff in 1966 that blacks "are now making
demands that will cost the nation something. ... You're
really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because
you are messing with folk then."
King's conclusion? "There must be a better distribution
of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a
democratic socialism." He didn't say this in the
mainstream but to his black colleagues.
Similarly, although King spoke famously against the
Vietnam War before a largely white audience at Riverside
Church in New York in 1967, exactly a year before he
died, he reserved some of his strongest antiwar language
for his sermons before black congregations. In his own
pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, two months
before his death, King raged against America's "bitter,
colossal contest for supremacy." He argued that God
"didn't call America to do what she's doing in the world
today," preaching that "we are criminals in that war"
and that we "have committed more war crimes almost than
any nation in the world." King insisted that God "has a
way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to
say to the Hebrews, 'Don't play with me, Israel. Don't
play with me, Babylon. Be still and know that I'm God.
And if you don't stop your reckless course, I'll rise up
and break the backbone of your power.' "
Perhaps nothing might surprise -- or shock -- white
Americans more than to discover that King said in 1967:
"I am sorry to have to say that the vast majority of
white Americans are racist, either consciously or
unconsciously." In a sermon to his congregation in 1968,
King openly questioned whether blacks should celebrate
the nation's 1976 bicentennial. "You know why?" King
asked. "Because it [the Declaration of Independence] has
never had any real meaning in terms of implementation in
In the same year, King bitterly suggested that black
folk couldn't trust America, comparing blacks to the
Japanese who had been interred in concentration camps
during World War II. "And you know what, a nation that
put as many Japanese in a concentration camp as they did
in the '40s ... will put black people in a concentration
camp. And I'm not interested in being in any
concentration camp. I been on the reservation too long
now." Earlier, King had written that America "was born
in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the
original American, the Indian, was an inferior race."
Such quotes may lead some to wrongly see King as anti-
white and anti-American, a minister who allowed politics
to trump religion in his pulpit, just as some see Wright
now. Or they might say that King 40 years ago had better
reason for bitterness than Wright in the enlightened
21st century. But that would put a fine point on
arguable gains, and it would reveal a deep unfamiliarity
with the history of the black Christian church.
The black prophetic church was born because of the
racist politics of the white church. Only when the white
church rejected its own theology of love and embraced
white supremacy did black folk leave to praise God in
their own sanctuaries, on their own terms. Insurgent
slave ministers such as Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey
and Nat Turner hatched revolts against slave masters.
Harriet Tubman was inspired by black religious belief to
lead hundreds of black souls out of slavery. For many
blacks, religion and social rebellion went hand in hand.
They still do.
For most of our history, the black pulpit has been the
freest place for black people. It is in the black church
that blacks gathered to enhance social networks, gain
education, wage social struggle -- and express the grief
and glory of black existence. The preacher was one of
the few black figures not captive to white interests or
bound by white money. Because black folk paid his
salary, he was free to speak his mind and that of his
congregation. The preacher often said things that most
black folk believed but were afraid to say. He used his
eloquence and erudition to defend the vulnerable and
assail the powerful.
King extended that prophetic tradition, which includes
vigorous self-criticism as well -- especially sharp
words against the otherworldliness that grips some
churches. In 1967, King said that too many black
churches were "so absorbed in a future good 'over
yonder' that they condition their members to adjust to
the present evils 'over here.' " Two months before his
death, King chided black preachers for standing "in the
midst of the poverty of our own members" and mouthing
"pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities."
King struck fiercely at the ugly, self-serving practices
of some black ministers when he claimed that they were
"more concerned about the size of the wheelbase on our
automobiles, and the amount of money we get in our
anniversaries, than ... about the problems of the people
who made it possible for us to get these things."
Obama has seized on the early King to remind Americans
about what we can achieve when we allow our imaginations
to soar high as we dream big. Wright has taken after the
later King, who uttered prophetic truths that are easily
caricatured when snatched from their religious and
racial context. What united King in his early and later
periods is the incurable love that fueled his
hopefulness and rage. As King's example proves, as we
dream, we must remember the poor and vulnerable who live
a nightmare. And as we strike out in prophetic anger
against injustice, love must cushion even our hardest
Michael Eric Dyson is a professor of sociology at
Georgetown University and the author of 16 books,
including the just-published "April 4, 1968: Martin
Luther King Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America."