King, Dyson argues in his new book, "I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr." (Free Press), was "the greatest American in our history." But to understand why, Dyson says, Americans must recall and reclaim the King whom FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called "the most dangerous Negro in America."
"I have a problem with the namby-pamby, we-are-the-world, Michael-Jackson King--I could probably add Quincy Jones," says Dyson, kicking off a national book tour before a small, rapt audience at a Washington bookstore. "I am tired of the representation of King as basically this safe Negro. I think he was a very radical brother. I think he was a very dangerous man. He didn't get killed because he was dreaming."
The next morning, a Sunday, Dyson is preaching before several hundred at Union Temple Baptist Church. He is recalling for them King's last sermon in Washington, at the National Cathedral, where, years after his "I Have a Dream" speech, King lamented that most Americans were unconscious racists, that most white people were unable to confront systematic bigotry.
"That's not the King whom you are going to be hearing about on his birthday, that isn't the Burger King King," roars Dyson, who is an ordained Baptist minister as well as the Ida B. Wells Barnett professor at DePaul University in Chicago.
In anticipation of the Jan. 17 national King holiday, Dyson says, "I am trying to challenge people to remember that King, to resurrect that Martin Luther King. That King is a King who is useful to us right now."
It is, Dyson says in an interview, the King who by the time of his death was publicly calling for a more aggressive and disruptive nonviolence, who privately had come to believe the answer to American inequality rested in democratic socialism, who said blacks might have to self-segregate for a time to prepare themselves for liberation. It is the King, Dyson argues, who has a lot more in common with the dead gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur than with black businessman Ward Connerly of California, who has repeatedly deployed King's words in his campaign to end race-conscious affirmative action.
Most every schoolchild knows that Martin Luther King had a dream, and every politician right of center knows what he dreamt: "that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Connerly and those right-of-center politicians have used the line to argue that affirmative action as now practiced isn't what King was dreaming of. Dyson has spent a lot of time debating Connerly and others at public forums. It was his growing irritation at the use of King as "the poster boy" for a cause Dyson is quite confident he would have detested, that prompted him to write this book, which he describes as a work of "biocriticism."
"Martin Luther King in his life was saying that America was a deeply rotted racist society," says Dyson. "We freeze him at the Lincoln Memorial. `I have a dream.' We love those cadences that rolled effortlessly off of his tongue."
In the book Dyson suggests a 10-year moratorium on listening to or reading the "I Have a Dream" speech. Sure, it's one of the great orations in American history. But what Dyson considers its twisted misuse is suffocating the real King, the rest of King. Only when Americans are required to learn more about what the man said and thought than a single line from a single speech will they come to understand who he really was.
For example, says Dyson, "Dr. King wanted something more profound than affirmative action. He wanted racial compensation."
In his 1964 book, "Why We Can't Wait," King said: "No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill."
Dyson was a teen father on welfare before starting classes at Knoxville College, in Tennessee, at 21. He has written frequently on race, including the books "Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X," "Between God and Gangsta Rap" and "Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line."
His new appointment at DePaul is extraordinary because it permits him to roam across disciplinary boundaries -- philosophy, law,sociology, art, music and communications. It is fitting, though, for a man who in every speech is by turns the Princeton Ph.D., Baptist preacher, hip-hop rapper, mimic, crooner and comic.
In ways that may make some of his ideological allies uncomfortable, Dyson's book is unflinching in its examination of King's faults.
He was a plagiarizer. "He ripped off a lot of his dissertation, he stole it," says Dyson. But Dyson is more forgiving of King's penchant for borrowing material for his sermons, which Dyson feels enabled King to turn the words of white liberal theologians back on whites in ways that exposed their own prejudices.
"If hip-hop was around, people would have said he was sampling, he was Puff Daddy," says Dyson.
And, Dyson says, King was also "a guilt-ridden and vigilant adulterer," though he adds that were it not for the FBI, we wouldn't know that. "The fact that we even know about that is a crime."
Part of Dyson's purpose in examining King's faults, though, is to undermine the use of King as some plaster saint to condemn without consideration some hip-hop artists who share very similar faults.
Dyson, now 41, was living in Detroit when King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
"I was 9 years old. I had never heard of King. I'd never heard his name until that evening on television the newsman broke into the regular program and asserted that Martin Luther King Jr. had just been shot in Memphis, Tenn. I had no idea who he was," Dyson recalls. "I asked my mom which one was he, and (on the tapes on TV) he was speaking with so much power and eloquence that I was immediately converted beyond the realm of choice to a love and commitment and identification with Martin Luther King Jr. that has remained with me."
But what of today's 9-year-olds? It is a lot easier for a parent, schoolteacher or after-school special to present King as a bland apostle of brotherhood than a sometimes despairing critic of what he saw as the racist rot at the nation's core.
As Dyson says in his book, "If the bitter battle to squeeze King into the cycle of public holidays that cement citizenship seemed to be a significant victory, as I believe it was, an even bigger challenge looms in keeping King's birthday from being turned into a festival of forgetting his challenging legacy.
"How do you accurately portray a figure who was so radically threatening to American society that it took his murder to appreciate his greatness?" asks Dyson. "That is at the heart of the dilemma that the representation of a real radical presents, because if he is a real radical you are going to want to forget him. You are going to want to erase him from your historical record because he challenges the very foundation you have erected your memory, your culture and history on."