“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” These words written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Letter from a Birmingham Jail epitomized King’s philosophy and motivation toward his role in the United States civil rights movement. Dr. King rose to prominence in the mid-1950s and became entrenched in the injustices of southern life, the politics of racism and the realities of segregation and discrimination.
From his first boycotts for city bus integration and interstate busing to school desegregation, equality in society, voting rights and an end of poverty in America, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s passive protests and marches catapulted him and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the forefront of the civil rights movement. And King’s name became synonymous with the movement and freedom. And in the popular version of history, Dr. King was a strong, dedicated, compassionate, Christian leader who led his people to freedom through the courts, the White House and the U.S. Congress.
Recent depictions of King and the civil rights movement have altered the public perception of Dr. King, not just as a leader but also as a man. The 2014 dramatized film Selma from filmmaker Ava DuVernay portrayed the build-up to and the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The film brought to the masses Dr. King’s public and private struggles. More than a decade earlier, Michael Eric Dyson in I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. examined King’s life and legacy in his 2000 work. Dyson, like DuVernay, showed Dr. King as not just a leader of civil rights, but a man with faults even as he engaged in a public campaign for equality and rights.
Revising the image of Dr. King from earlier sources, such as PBS’s Eyes on the Prize, biographies and King’s own words, Dyson knew the only way in which to portray Dr. King and all that he accomplished was to tell the whole story of his personal and public struggles—or in his words, to show “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of Dr. King, his legacy and the civil rights movement.
Dyson wrote that earlier biographies “sanitized” Dr. King’s life by ignoring some of his more controversial ideas, including a “mistrust of white Americans, commitment to black solidarity,...and hard-nosed criti(que) of economic injustice,” as well as his personal weaknesses. Authors ignored these issues as they showed a more contentious King, one who challenged white perception of the success of civil rights, lost the support of northern liberals and faced condemnation by the press. Following the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the U.S. government’s position on Vietnam, King no longer stood silent, as he vocally criticized the Administration, white supremacy, economic injustices and foreign affairs. And for writers to ignore the later years of Dr. King’s work does a disservice to his legacy and significance. Dyson, however, did not shy away from the controversial topics, but discussed King’s writings, speeches and personal interactions from President Lyndon Johnson to civil rights leaders and family and friends to Memphis sanitation workers.
I May Not Get There With You is a work that weaves its way through Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and his legacy. Dyson used Dr. King’s significant quotes to introduce each chapter of his manuscript. While not a chronological retelling of Dr. King’s life, Dyson’s work explored his ideology, identity and image. Dyson discussed Dr. King’s sometimes contentious relationships with civil rights leaders, his racial politics, his plagiarism of others’ works, his preoccupation with his death and his personal relationships. Sprinkled throughout are the author’s comments regarding his reaction to King and his legacy through the creation of a federal holiday, organizations who use his ideas to further their own, and the family’s actions to preserve and limit control of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words and image.
I May Not Get There with You is a must read for anyone who thought they knew everything about civil rights or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dyson shows the reader that understanding the total man is the way to understand the movement and not marginalize the work accomplished by King and those who followed. Dyson’s account angered some who thought by showing Dr. King’s weaknesses, he denigrated all that King accomplished. But, for historical accounts to only present Dr. King in a picture perfect image, our understanding of Dr. King and civil rights lacked comprehensive knowledge of the man, of the movement, of civil rights. In the end, Dr. King’s dream of a nation where everyone prayed, struggled and worked together still eludes us—“Now is the time.”