Distinguished civil rights author and scholar Michael Eric Dyson delivered UMKC’s fifth annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Keynote Address last Wednesday.
Dyson said his speech reflected on Dr. King’s life as “living the legacy of an American radical.”
That puts King in the same category as figures like Jesus, Mohandas Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony and Abraham Lincoln, Dyson said.
“A radical is a person who appeals to the ideals that are at the roots of our democracy,” he said.
Dyson defended King against accusations that he was a “defender of the status quo.”
“[His] true radical legacy has been obscured and nullified by selective retrievals of specific moments of his rhetoric that don’t really testify to his evolution or final resting place,” Dyson said. “Everyone got stuck on his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech like that’s the only hit he had.”
He focused on King’s development as a young adult: a gifted, deep-thinking student who graduated from college at 19 and quickly rose to prominence in his 20s.
As an African-American, King faced ugly opposition from Southern white supremacists and institutionalized discrimination.
Dyson encouraged the audience to be prepared and look for opportunities to implement radical ideals of freedom and equality where injustice exists, citing the Montgomery Bus Boycott as an example of an effective resistance movement against oppression.
Dyson discussed the context of the Civil Rights movement in the current era.
Many of the same problems that faced American blacks in the mid-20th Century, such as structural poverty, persist.
However, Dyson kept his message positive, tailoring the lecture to students and young adults in his audience.
“Crisis and opportunity are often wrapped in each other’s arms,” Dyson said.
Dyson engaged the audience with his intellect, musical prowess and sense of humor.
A professor of sociology at Georgetown University, Dyson is the recipient of two NAACP Image Awards for his books “Why I Love Black Women” and “Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost its Mind?”
He also won the 2007 American Book Award for “Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster.”
The MLK Keynote Address was hosted by the UMKC Division of Diversity, Access and Equity.