Friday, August 29, 2008 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: Obama Launches Sharp Assault on McCain, Bush in...
2008-08-29

Michael Eric Dyson Puts Obama’s Address in Historical Context

Guests

Michael Eric Dyson, professor at Georgetown University, where he teaches theology, English and African American studies. He is also an ordained Baptist minister and the author of sixteen books, including April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America and Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster.

DONATE →
This is viewer supported news

We discuss the significance of Barack Obama’s historic presidential nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic convention with Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at Georgetown University, where he teaches theology, English and African American studies. He is also an ordained Baptist minister and the author of sixteen books, including April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America and Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:

We’re joined right now here in Denver in our special broadcast, “Breaking with Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency, From the Streets to the Suites to the Convention Floor” by Michael Eric Dyson, professor at Georgetown University, where he teaches theology, English and African American studies, also an ordained Baptist minister and author of sixteen books, including — well, that’s at last count — April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America. He also wrote Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster, as we talk on this third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Michael Eric Dyson, it’s good to have you with us.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Great to be here with you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, why don’t we start with Dr. King, forty-five years ago?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

And then let’s talk about what happened last night.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Sure. Well, you know, Martin Luther King, Jr. was giving an amazing speech. He had the history of Abraham Lincoln in his background. He had the Lincoln Memorial, of course, there as the backdrop to his speech, and he was quite conscious of trying to make a Lincolnesque speech: “Five score years ago, a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Now, for Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s about a C+ speech. He’s, you know, hitting all the notes but not feeling the great inspiration. Mahalia Jackson hollers from the sideline, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” And so, he puts the paper down, and he soars. Black women have often been in the background of tremendous events for which they’ve never been given credit.

But Martin Luther King, Jr. was saying some things at the beginning of that speech that have been obscured by the last, the peroration, the dream stuff. He says, “We have come to the nation’s capital to cash a check that has been returned to us ‘insufficient funds.’ I refuse to believe that the great vaults of democracy are empty.” He said, “We are marooned on a tiny island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” All that’s obscured.

He says, “Negroes in the South can’t vote, and Negroes in the North believe they have nothing for which to vote.” He went on to say that police brutality was the reality, and the marvelous new militancy which has arisen certainly must not replace white supremacy with black supremacy, but he acknowledged those young people. All of that was in that speech. He said, “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of this nation.” I mean, this is tremendous language, but is obscured by the dream element of that speech.

But Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated a vision that had the possibility of transforming American society, because he was trying to make an argument for the vote and for civil rights. John Kennedy was relieved when Martin Luther King, Jr. went to the White House immediately after the speech, and he says, “I have a dream, too.” So he was very wary. You know, there’s a great book about John Kennedy and his relationship to civil rights called The Bystander. The title alone suggests that he did as little as possible, any minimal critical effort, to really facilitate civil rights in the White House.

AMY GOODMAN:

You saw, in the conversation I had with John Lewis before I was so rudely interrupted by the Denver police —

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Yes, right.

AMY GOODMAN:

—- that, well, John Lewis, of course, forty-five years ago -— and he was honored last night —

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

—- in the first part of the event with Dr. King and King’s children -— he gave a speech —

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

— which was toned down.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Oh, yeah, they vetted that speech. He was going to give a radical speech about the march of Sherman. They said, “Hey, we got to tone that down a little bit, because the old man, A. Philip Randolph, has been imagining this speech for decades, imagining this march for decades. Please, let’s not interrupt the broader march here, and let’s not forget the bigger picture.” So he toned it down.

He was the young Turk on the stadium — on the pulpit that day, the rostrum, the podium. Dorothy Hite, the female leader, of course, could not even speak, so sexism interrupted the process there. The radical was toned down. And Martin Luther King, Jr. was given his nine minutes. That’s what he was assigned to be able to speak that day.

And what’s interesting — you know, we talk about this generational division between the civil rights generation and Barack Obama’s post-civil rights generation. Well, there was a lot of beef between A. Philip — between Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young and those guys and Martin Luther King, Jr. Roy Wilkins was older. Thurgood Marshall said, “Wait a minute. We should be doing this in a court. You’re taking this to the street?” Martin Luther King, Jr. was looked at as a young rebel who was doing something that was quite antithetical to the interests of black people, especially as Thurgood Marshall and Wilkins and the NAACP conceived it. So they said, “We’ll give him the last speech. We’ll speak first” — Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young — because the camera — I believe it was from CBS — would be there. They’d get captured. Plus, they didn’t want to speak after King.

But they didn’t know that by the time King was about to speak, not only was CBS there, but ABC and NBC joined it, because it was such a monumental thing. His nine minutes got transformed into nineteen minutes of pure oratorical genius, especially at the end. And the rest, as they say, is history.

AMY GOODMAN:

Michael Eric Dyson, fast-forward forty-five years to the Mile High Stadium. 84,000 people crowd in —

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN:

— making it the largest audience for a nomination acceptance speech in the history of this country, beating out John F. Kennedy at the L.A. Coliseum, what, at 80,000.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

Then, of course, 25 million people watching on television.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

What about what the substance of Barack Obama had to say?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Well, you know, he had a tough audience, so to speak. He had a tough responsibility, because he had been criticized, ironically enough, for being, you know, a soaring orator. You know, fill in the blanks, give it to us. Well, you know, policy wonkish speeches are not necessarily those things that inspire us. So he’s got to fill in the blanks. He’s got to meet the demand that he give a speech that displays his broad knowledge of the public policy issues that are critical to American future and the expansion of democracy, and at the same time prove his bona fides as an American patriot and then not be ghettoized in any sense to an African American tradition, but seeing that as a springboard to an American tradition, and plus he’s got to inspire. Jeez, that’s a hard thing to do, and then you got 84,000 people out there. 20,000 can’t get in. They’ve come to you, six-mile lines. It was an extraordinary thing.

But I think that he was conscious of that historical legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., referred to it at the end, had set it up that John Lewis and Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Martin Luther King, Jr., III, had participated. So he had the pageantry of the civil rights generation, but he looked toward a kind of future that moved beyond issues of race and class and gender and their negative, pernicious consequences. So it was a very difficult thing he had to do, but I think, in many ways, a lot of people felt very good about that speech and felt that he delivered.

AMY GOODMAN:

How did you feel overall? Was there something you wanted to hear more of, or did this do it for you?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Well, you know, no speech is perfect. And as a minister myself, I know how difficult it is, depending upon the inspiration. I used to tell people when I preached at a church, “If you want a great sermon, be a great audience.” And he had a great audience. I mean, you know, they were enthusiastic. They were ready to hear from him.

And I think he did a very difficult thing. He laid out his position. He showed a sharp contrast between him and John McCain, or at least he tried to establish that, and tried to get back at John McCain. But look, he’s in a difficult position. He’s a black man. Are you going to be an angry black man? Are you going to — if he goes after McCain too hard, then he’s perceived as a kind of angry black fellow, so he can’t really do that. But he has to also articulate his resistance to Mr. McCain’s policy, as well as his project for America, as a kind of John Wayne, gung ho, gunboat guerilla democracy that begins to play the games of war in ways that have been problematic. So it was a difficult thing to do, but I think he struck his note pretty high.

AMY GOODMAN: What about his calling for intensifying the war in Afghanistan?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah, that’s a very difficult thing to do. I mean, I think, as Senator Obama sees it, that Iraq’s occupation has nothing to do — and I think it was — was it Senator Biden or Gore, I can’t remember, who — or no, it was Senator Obama, where, you know, occupying Iraq, when this is a war that’s being prosecuted in eighty different places and countries, is not sufficient. So I think that the contrast for him is that Iraq is not the place to be, but the intensification of Afghanistan is. And then many people, of course, are very uncomfortable with that, because the intensification of the war in Afghanistan doesn’t mean that you’re dealing with the source of al-Qaeda anyway, and you’re not dealing with the economic and the social suffering and misery that lead to some of the choices that have been destructive in that region.

AMY GOODMAN:

Last night, Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill asked Jesse Jackson about the Afghanistan escalation that Barack Obama is pushing for. He said he thinks Dr. King would have supported that. Do you agree?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

The escalation in Afghanistan, that Dr. King would have supported that? Now, there’s a way to say that you could support that in this day and age. I don’t know if Dr. King would have supported the escalation in Afghanistan, because Martin Luther King, Jr., after all, is a moral leader and a political figure, insofar as he’s dealing with the distribution of resources. He’s not a politician. So I think Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been a handful for any president now, including Barack Obama. It would have been interesting.

And I, obviously, as a surrogate of Senator Obama and have supported him from the very beginning, because I’ve known him for a number of years, but to contend that Martin Luther King, Jr. would support the intensification in Afghanistan would be problematic. I think that Mr. Obama, himself, said, when asked the question, you know, during the South Carolina debate, “Tell us why Martin Luther King, Jr. would support you,” he said, “He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t support any presidential candidate. He would get America as a public to hold me accountable, because change happens from the bottom up, not the top down.”

AMY GOODMAN:

Barack Obama said, “You don’t protect Israel and deter Iran just by talking tough in Washington.”

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Yeah, well, obviously, Mr. Obama is conscious of, you know, making certain that security for Israel is paramount, for a variety of reasons too complex, all of which, to parse here. But I think that, obviously, he is conscious of the fact that Israel’s place and prominence in American foreign policy is a given, and his argument to defend them is something that has been problematic to many people, as well as the fact that the difficulty of having balanced discourse, rhetoric and dialogue in America about Palestine and Israel and the relationship between those two competing forces in that region, and Israel’s security, as well as Palestine’s — the Palestinians’ security in that area, it’s a very difficulty and tricky way.

AMY GOODMAN:

I want to turn to a part of Dr. King’s speech forty-five years ago, August 28, 1963.

    REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: The marvelous new militancy, which has engulfed the Negro community, must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

    And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied, as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied, as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied, as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “for whites only.” We cannot be satisfied, as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No. No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied, until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

AMY GOODMAN:

Dr. Martin Luther King, forty-five years ago, like a mighty stream, taking on those issues.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Yeah, yeah. It’s remarkable. A lot of people forget that he dealt with those issues.

AMY GOODMAN:

Barack Obama is not opposed to the death penalty.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN:

Your thoughts on that? You have a brother who’s in jail for life?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Yes, yes. Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN:

For murder, a crime he says he didn’t commit.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Exactly. And obviously, that — you know, thank God that the death penalty did not exist in Michigan, because he might be on death row right now. So, it’s interesting, you know, Barack Obama’s response to the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year. Myself, obviously, with my brother in prison, I see this from a perspective where so many people who are innocent, you know, may be sent to death. The Innocence Project with Barry Scheck and others in Illinois has proved that there have been hundreds of, especially African American, prisoners who are not fairly treated. So, to me, the death penalty, along with the prison-industrial complex, along with the making of money on the backs of the incarceration of black and Latino men and, increasingly, poor white people, is a huge problem in American culture.

AMY GOODMAN:

And your thoughts on Barack Obama supporting the death penalty? Do you think he understands this issue of the disparate effect, even if you believed in the death penalty, that it has on particularly people of color in this country?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Oh, yes. I think that he’s conscious of that. I think he wrestles with that. There’s no question about that. I don’t think it’s an easy conclusion he comes to. I think that the eyebrow-raising occasion by his suggesting that the death penalty might be applicable to arenas outside of somebody consciously and deliberately murdering someone versus the raping, the brutal raping, undeniably, of a child, was certainly very, very curious to many.

But I think he’s quite conscious of this racial disparity, because when he was in the Illinois State Senate, he was conscious of racial profiling. He was conscious of the untoward effects. And, of course, being in Illinois, you couldn’t help but, you know, understand what the governor was doing with prisoners who were on death row.

AMY GOODMAN:

George Ryan —

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Exactly, Brother Ryan, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN:

— ended up commuting all their sentences.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Yes, yeah, a hundred of them.

AMY GOODMAN:

Finally, we only have less than a minute, but Hurricane Katrina. You wrote a book about it, Come Hell or High Water.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN:

Today, the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Well, it’s stunning. I’ve looked at Wendell Pierce on your interview there, and here it is that this nation, three years later, still hasn’t ponied up, hasn’t taken seriously the lives and the interests of these people. And he said it’s something like $300 million there, maybe as much as $500 million, that’s not been distributed to the people who need it. And when the monies went to that area, they were given in disproportionate numbers to Mississippi and other places where people were doing a bit better, had a bit more economic support, than those who are still vulnerable in New Orleans.

AMY GOODMAN:

And yet, Democrats are in charge of both houses.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Well, there’s no question about it, and it’s the shame of the nation.

AMY GOODMAN:

Do you think it would change under Barack Obama as president?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

I would hope so, but as Mr. Pierce said, nobody’s exempt. You know, the push for Barack Obama to become president is huge, and it’s wonderful, but nobody is exempt. And yes, but I happen to think it would change.

AMY GOODMAN:

Michael Eric Dyson, I want to thank you for being with us.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON:

Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN:

Professor of sociology at University of Pennsylvania and now at Georgetown. I want to thank you for being with us. His book is Come Hell or High Water, also April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America. He has many others, as well.

Show Full Transcript ›
‹ Hide Full Transcript

Recent Shows More

Full News Hour

Stories


Creative Commons License The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.