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Michael Eric Dyson Discusses Martin Luther King, Jr.

Michael Eric Dyson Is the author of the new book "I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr." (The Free Press). In It, Dyson argues that Martin Luther King Jr, the human being, with flaws and gifts serves us better than the romanticized and Idealized King. Dyson is also the author of "Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X," and other books. Dyson Is an ordained Baptist minister and a Professor at DePaul University.


Other segments from the episode on February 17, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 17, 2000: Interview with Michael Eric Dyson; Interview with Karl Evanzz; Commentary on the word "virtual."


Date: FEBRUARY 17, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 021701np.217
Head: Michael Eric Dyson Examines Martin Luther King Jr. the Man, Not the Myth
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Martin Luther King's true legacy has been lost to cultural amnesia, according to my guest, Michael Eric Dyson. In his new book, "I May Not Get There With You," Dyson argues that King's strengths have been needlessly exaggerated, and so have his weaknesses.

Dyson considers King the greatest American who ever lived, but, Dyson says, what makes King great is his sublime mix of the profound and the profane. Dyson's goal is to rescue King from his admirers and deliver him from his foes.

Dyson's other books include "Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X," and "Between God and Gangsta Rap." Dyson is an ordained Baptist minister and a professor at DePaul University.

How many years have you been teaching college?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON, "I MAY NOT GET THERE WITH YOU": I've been teaching college for over a decade.

GROSS: Have you found that your students' attitudes toward King have changed at all in those years? You know, as you see different classes of students.

DYSON: As I get older and they get younger.

GROSS: Right. (laughs) There you go.

DYSON: (laughs) The inevitable progress of time there. I think that many of the students simply don't know much about Martin Luther King Jr., so they tend to view him as this icon, this saint, this hero who was amazingly distant from ourselves. My very good friend Susan Thistlethwaite (ph), who was the president of Chicago Theological Seminary, says that her son spent an afternoon, for instance, with Jesse Jackson, and when coming home, she said, "You know, Mom, Reverend Jackson talks like Martin Luther King Jr., was a real man." (laughs)

And I think that many young people don't understand that this was as flesh and blood man, that he had wants and needs and desires, that he had failures and faults, but that he had an amazing amount of courage and integrity and beauty and genius that resides in all of us. And I think the beauty of Martin Luther King Jr.'s, memory, for those of us who are trying to seize it back from the radical right and for those who have tried to lionize Martin Luther King Jr., while disrespecting the very people from whom he emerged, I think the beauty of that is that he is a human being, full of wonder and glory and genius, but also the normal and ordinary human afflictions that all of us endure.

And for that reason, we're able to overcome some of the failures and faults that we have to make a real and significant achievement, a real contribution to American society.

So I think that's the Martin Luther King Jr., that young people need to see, need to hear about, need to discuss.

GROSS: You know, you describe Martin Luther King as being portrayed now as a saint, instead of a man who was filled with contradictions, a man who had to struggle with some of his own impulses. How do you think that saint image was created?

DYSON: Well, it was created for a variety of reasons. First of all, it was created because white America needed this black hero to justify attacks on the black power movement and upon those black people who wanted to celebrate violence. So Martin Luther King Jr., was a convenient hero. We must remember that in 1967, for the first time in a decade, King had fallen off of the Gallup poll's 10 most admired American list. So he was not being celebrated by white America or profoundly embraced by black people.

Universities were rejecting him for lectureships, New York publishers said they were not interested in the book by him. So he was at the low point of his career when he was murdered.

The powerful waves of martyrdom swept back the ocean of opposition to King to now put him at the top of the heap of American heroes, to join the great pantheon of figures like Lincoln and Jefferson and so on. So white America needed a great hero. Black America equally needed a hero to celebrate the ingenuity of black achievement, to suggest that this figure was powerful and insightful precisely because he took the American dilemma by the horns and tried to shake it loose.

All those things came together and served neatly to make Martin Luther King Jr., the acclaimed figure he is today.

GROSS: You know, a lot of people are just really confused and appalled at the revelations of Martin Luther King's extramarital affairs. You kind of see that as an opportunity to discuss that he wasn't a saint, he was a man, and that we should embrace him with his imperfections and help use that to understand other people's imperfections as well.

How do you bring this up with your students when you're discussing Martin Luther King and talking about his imperfections as well as his leadership?

DYSON: Yes, what I do in discussing this issue with my students is, first of all, make certain that they understand that I know and believe that Martin Luther King Jr., was the greatest American we've ever produced in American society. When he was murdered in Memphis, his blood stained the American conscience like few other events have done.

So I suggest that Martin Luther King Jr., was a man worthy of valorization, worthy of becoming a hero, and indeed, as the Catholic Church has suggested, worthy of being named a martyr of the 21st century.

On the other hand, I suggest that we have to tackle those thorny issues of morality that Martin Luther King Jr., struggled with. And I bring it up to my students in the context of saying, Listen, this was a flesh and blood human being who had limitations. And if we expect more out of King than we expect of our -- out of ourselves, we're really doing a grave disservice to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Because he was able to overcome the odds against -- that were stacked against him, you too as young people can overcome the odds that were stacked against you. But it would be a disservice to us to pretend that Martin Luther King, Jr., had to be morally perfect in order to achieve something. It would be unfair to him precisely because no human being can match that kind of record, no human being can really live up to the ideals that he or she embodies, even in his own preaching or her own life.

So I suggest to them that Martin Luther King, Jr., as a flesh and blood human being, struggled not only against white supremacy and economic inequality, but struggled with himself. There were at least two or three Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, competing for supremacy in his own life.

On the one hand, there was the very introverted Martin Luther King, Jr., who was quite shy. If you read the essays of James Baldwin, he talks about meeting King, who was never impressed with himself, who was never puffed up with a bunch of hubris or pride. Then there was the Martin Luther King, Jr., who was the world historical figure, in the words of Hegel, who felt that he had to really bear the burden of African-American people in the face of the onslaught of white supremacy.

And then there was the King who was just a human being saying, Look, I don't even deserve half the press that I get. I don't deserve being featured as the preeminent leader of American morality, and certainly black America. And I simply want to go back and teach in school somewhere, become a dean somewhere. I want to shrink back from the necessity of always being representative of the race and of, ultimately, God.

But in the face of all of that, Martin Luther King, Jr., struggled with his own depression, especially for the last four years of his life, overcoming that depression, living with that depression to still make great speeches, to still lead people in the quest for freedom, and to still, every day, imagine a future radically different than the one that he had to endure.

GROSS: As you point out in your book, when Ralph Abernathy wrote in his book that the night before Martin Luther King was assassinated, he spent time with two or three women who were not his wife, a lot of people felt that Abernathy was a traitor to make that information public and tarnish King's image. What do you think about that?

DYSON: Well, I think two things. First of all, Ralph Abernathy had an obligation as a scribe, as a writer, as an intellectual, to tell the truth as best he could and as he knew it. So in one sense, I think the drudging -- or the -- the drudging up of old stories, and the drubbing of Ralph Abernathy was misled.

On the other hand, I think that we have to acknowledge that Ralph Abernathy was jealous of Martin Luther King, Jr., from the very beginning. When King won the Nobel Prize, Ralph Abernathy said, "I deserve half that money." He wanted to travel in the same kind of stature and regard and glory that King enjoyed.

So there was a -- not a love-hate relationship, but a love-jealous relationship with King his entire life. And I think that reflects itself in rather -- Ralph Abernathy's book.

Finally, I think Ralph Abernathy was hypocritical because he didn't acknowledge that he was joined in some of his affairs by Martin Luther King, Jr., early in their careers. So Ralph Abernathy himself sinned quite greatly but did not acknowledge that in his own book.

GROSS: Do you think that Martin Luther King's views changed as he got deeper into the civil rights movement, and as he took the civil rights movement north and started to understand how Northern racism compared to Southern racism?

DYSON: Yes, without question. When Martin Luther King, Jr., moved northwards after the great movements ending in the South in '65, going to Chicago in '66 and to Cleveland in '67, I think he saw a much different beast. On the one hand, he saw how lethal and subtle white supremacy was up North. There was no need of white water fountains and signs about, Blacks don't enter here, because the North was deeply segregated in its own right, especially in Chicago, which is a profoundly diverse but deeply segregated city.

So Martin Luther King, Jr., began to see that racial commerce flowed underground, that they didn't have to beat people up explicitly, they just beat them down psychologically. And moreover, I think the ingenuity of Richard Daley, the mayor then, was that he had a lot of black patronage. He had a lot of black people in his pocket, politicians and preachers as well. So that Martin Luther King, Jr., was not simply fighting the forces of white supremacy, he was fighting the fact that many black people had been co-opted by and capitulated to the political machinery of Richard Daley.

And he also understood that black people had a deeper psychological debt to white people up North than they had claimed to have. One of the untold stories is that Martin Luther King, Jr., was so disgusted with some of the actions of black people up North, because, as his aide, Josea Williams (ph), said, "We're used to dealing with people who want to be free." Blacks in Chicago are so psychologically beat down and domesticated and really having the sort of plantation mentality that you would expect from the South, that we can't even get a foothold in here because they are so beholden to the powers that be.

And Martin Luther King, Jr., faced the lethal intensity of this patronage to a political machinery that he had not learned to master. And that was a real revelation to him.

And so he also saw, however, the sort of hostility and the sort of animus that he said he had never seen in the South. When King came here to Chicago and was hit in the head with a rock, he stopped during that march, and one of the most memorable statements he made, he said, "I've never seen such hostility and hatred in the eyes of men and women anywhere in America as I have seen here in Chicago." And that was quite a revelation to him.

And it made him know that he had to change his strategy. No longer could he appeal to the conscience of a country that intended to do the right thing but that had stumbled along the way. Now he had to blaze a different path. Now he had to talk about forcing America to do the right thing. Now he had to talk about what he termed "aggressive nonviolence" to force American society to make the substantive racial transformation it needed to have in order to reach real justice.

GROSS: You suggest in your book that it might turn out that Martin Luther King even more than Malcolm X is the father of the hip-hop generation. What do you mean?

DYSON: Well, I mean, several things. First of all, because they had in common some habits, smoking, drinking, certainly their habits of sexuality, and in King's case, as with some other hip-hoppers' case, certain issues of promiscuity, charges of having children out of wedlock and so on and so forth, all these things joined Martin Luther King, Jr., to the hip-hop generation to a certain degree on the surface.

But even more in depth, I have three things in mind. First of all, that Martin Luther King, Jr., like hip-hoppers, used old, ancient texts, words, and sources in a fresh new way. He brought them out of the dustbin, so to speak, and gave them a fresh hearing by using them in his own sermons. Martin Luther King, Jr., borrowed the sermons of white liberal ministers and the words of colleagues in the civil rights movement who had none of the fame that King enjoyed, but he gave their words a broader audience, a global audience, indeed, and put them in the larger trajectory of the moral ambitions of the civil rights movement.

So I think in that sense, like an excellent producer within hip-hop, King was able to sample the words of others and give them fresh meaning.

Secondly, his viewpoints about women were distressingly similar to the viewpoints of hip-hoppers. As with hip-hop today, there are some very problematic beliefs about women that are circulating, and King certainly had his view of women that was quite chauvinistic and indeed in some levels quite sexist. Thirdly, I think, however, they both struggled with the issue of social suffering and evil. They dealt with economic inequality and they dealt with racial oppression.

And finally, many of the hip-hoppers, Tupac Shakur and Bigge Smalls to name just two, were obsessed with their deaths in the same way that Martin Luther King, Jr., was obsessed with his own death. Of course, King was being threatened every day of his life, and some could argue that Tupac and Bigge. brought their deaths upon their own heads by the violent lifestyles they lived. To a certain degree, that's absolutely right, and there is a moral distinction between King and, say, between Bigge. and Tupac.

But what I am suggesting is that both of them, that is, King and hip-hoppers, were unified in their understanding that their lives were short, or would be, perhaps, short, that the potential that they had would probably not be realized in their own lifetime, and that they would have to do so much in such a short time. And that similar perception on their parts, I think, links them in a very profound way.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Eric Dyson, author of the new book "I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Michael Eric Dyson, author of the new book "I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr."

I'm interested in the impact that Martin Luther King had on you as a young man. Let's start actually when you were very young. How old were you when Martin Luther King was assassinated?

DYSON: I was 9 years old when Dr. King was murdered in Memphis.

GROSS: What are your memories of that day?

DYSON: Well, I vividly remember sitting before the television in my home in the inner city in Detroit, Michigan, watching some news program -- some program, a Western, I believe it was, with my father. And then the news bulletin rudely interrupted the program to announce that Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot in Memphis, Tennessee. And my father just uttered this "Hmmm!" that was a veritable, you know, symbol of the rage and the wordless rage and the unspeakable rage and hurt that black America would endure when they found out that King had indeed been murdered.

So the newsman interrupted the program and said King had been shot. And I asked my mother, who had joined us by then in the television room there, in the living room, you know, "Which one is he?" And she pointed him out. And then they showed his speech, "I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land."

And I was immediately converted beyond will to this man's perspective, and I began to learn everything I could about him. The newsman eventually broke faith with the program again about a half an hour later and said that Martin Luther King, Jr., had died in Memphis, Tennessee. And it was a sad day in my house. It was a sad day in black America, and it was a sad day in many quarters of America, though the FBI and other figures within our government celebrated and partied when they found that King was murdered.

But that deeply influenced me. It was really the birth of my consciousness around the issue of race. Even though I had endured the riots at Detroit the summer before in 1967, nothing affected me like Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death. That propelled me into the vortex of race in American society and shaped my own understanding of my own career.

GROSS: As an 8-year-old boy observing the riots in Detroit, what was your understanding of the riots?

DYSON: Well, I saw brothers and sisters going down the street with those big Afros and having money stuffed under those Afros, and men and women going down the street with televisions. And I was going, "Well, gee, do you think we could get a television? Because we have a terrible television." And I asked my mother, what was this smoke in the sky? And I understood that there was a tremendous tension between black and white people. I didn't comprehend it in its full complexity, of course, but I was told that there was a disappointment and rage in many of my black brothers and sisters in the poorest parts of our city.

And that -- and I certainly was one of those poor people. But we didn't, you know, go out on the streets and riot. We observed the curfew and so on. But my mother and father told me that black people had been upset because of the unequal treatment and something going wrong in America. And that was my initial introduction into the schism of race in America.

GROSS: When you started really learning more about Martin Luther King, after he was assassinated, what were some of the excerpts of his speeches that really spoke to you, the words that stuck with you most?

DYSON: Wow. Well, many of them. I never will forget his speech actually in Chicago, where he said, "I have no martyr complex. I want to live as long as anybody. If you want us to end our moves into communities, open these communities. Don't put a moratorium on demonstrations, put a moratorium on injustice."

And I shall never forget the first words I heard King speak, that some of us are saying -- "Some people are saying, What would happen to me as a result of our white brothers? Well, I really don't know what will happen now, but it really doesn't matter to me now, because I've been to the mountaintop."

I tell you, when I hear those words now, they send goose pimples up my body and make me stop and remark upon the incredible genius that King embodied in that last speech. And that -- to know that it was an improvised speech, that he didn't initially want to go to the hall that night to deliver that speech, but he was pressed by Ralph Abernathy to come.

And in an extraordinary display of rhetorical genius laid out his vision for the next century. And I think that that speech is the greatest speech of King's career because its prophetic, apocalyptic tones are joined with his belief that despite what will ever -- what will happen, that God will see black people and all well-meaning Americans through to the Promised Land.

GROSS: One of the things that you're concerned about now in discussing Martin Luther King's legacy is how his family is handling his papers, his home. What are some of your concerns about how the King family is handling the King legacy?

DYSON: Yes, well, let me clarify, first of all, that the King family certainly, for most of their existence after their father and husband's death, certainly have not enjoyed a high style of living in our country. They -- Mrs. King never moved from the home, the modest home in a marginal community in which they lived in Atlanta, Georgia. They didn't reap excessive economic benefit from the King legacy until quite recently, when they signed the deal with Time Warner. And now the potential $20 million payoff of giving their papers to the Library of Congress, the papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.

So first of all, I think it's clear to say that they have certainly not economically benefited from that legacy. But they have in recent years tended to exploit the commercial side of the King estate, as opposed to the intellectual legacy of Dr. King's commitment to nonviolence. And I think that is a legitimate area where we can scrutinize and subsequently criticize the King family. And I think they want to have it both ways. They want to be both the legatees of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, moral legacy while exploiting the intellectual property rights that have accrued to them.

I think that they certainly deserve to get paid, as it were, off of King's legacy, and certainly deserve to make a comfortable living from their father's and husband's extraordinary commitment. On the other hand, I think that the King family has to acknowledge that they cannot, as the biological heirs of King, control how the world views this great figure. They can put their bid forward, but they must not have a kind of decisive sway over the interpretation of King, because families, as most other families would do, the family of King, I think, has a vested interest in denying the faults and failures of Martin Luther King, Jr., for obvious reasons, while celebrating a kind of sanitized version of Martin Luther King, Jr., on the other hand.

And I think we need to see him warts and all, precisely because exposing those warts will expose his genius.

Finally, I think when the King family decided to sue Henry Hampton, a black man whose company produced the "Eyes on the Prize" award-winning videos because he used certain segments of King's speeches and images of him, I think this is something that was quite ridiculous, and I think it contradicted everything King stood for.

Here was a man who, as biographer David Garrow said, was impressively as uncommercial as any human being has ever been, and yet the King family has explicitly exploited the commercial side of King's legacy, while neglecting, while cutting back on the programs that deal with King's intellectual and moral legacy.

GROSS: Well, Michael Eric Dyson, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

DYSON: Thank you for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Michael Eric Dyson is the author of "I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Michael Eric Dyson
High: Michael Eric Dyson is the author of the new book "I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr." In It, Dyson argues that Martin Luther King Jr. the human being, with flaws and gifts, serves us better than the romanticized and idealized King. Dyson is also the author of "Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X," and other books. Dyson is an ordained Baptist minister and a professor at DePaul University.
Spec: Martin Luther King Jr.; Civil Rights; Profiles; Race Relations; Minorities

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Michael Eric Dyson Examines Martin Luther King Jr. the Man, Not the Myth

Date: FEBRUARY 17, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 021702NP.217
Head: Karl Evanzz Discusses His Book on Elijah Muhammad
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

There's a new biography of Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam from 1934 to his death in 1975. My guest is the author, Karl Evanzz, an online editor at "The Washington Post."

Evanzz says that Elijah Muhammad's life has many different meanings, depending on who you ask. To his followers, he was the Prophet. To many Jewish groups, he was an anti-Semite. Many orthodox Muslims see him as a heretic. Some people believe he instigated the assassination of his former discipline, Malcolm X.

Evanzz's book is based in part on FBI documents he requested through the Freedom of Information Act. Evanzz's new book is also about Wallace D. Fard, who founded the Nation if Islam and introduced Elijah Muhammad to Islam.

Elijah Muhammad had a serious drinking problem when he met Wallace D. Fard in Detroit in 1930. Evanzz says Elijah Muhammad was overwhelmed by Fard's presence.

KARL EVANZZ, "THE MESSENGER": He looks at him, and he's mesmerized, not only by the way the man looks but by his speaking patterns and the way he's dressed and everything else. Again, Fard was a very charismatic person who soon attracted more than 7,000 members to the Nation of Islam.

So Elijah Poole (ph) was just one of many who found him mesmerizing.

He basically told Elijah Muhammad some very profound things. He would say, for example, If you stop eating pork, I can revolutionize your health. If you save a little money, I can make you a very rich man. So he had all these enticements out there that Elijah Muhammad found too intriguing to ignore. And he soon converted him. And as I said, he taught him for the next three and a half years everything he knew, things about the Kabala, Freemasonry, Christianity, Judaism, and everything else, and basically gave Elijah Muhammad a reeducation.

GROSS: Now, Wallace D. Fard, his real identity was different from who he claimed to be. Who did he claim to be when he met Elijah Muhammad?

EVANZZ: Wallace D. Fard arrived in Detroit and claimed to be the Messiah expected at the end of time. He said that he was a prophet that -- who had come to deliver black people to the Holy Land. He said he was from Saudi Arabia and that he was -- that he descended from the royal family of the Tribe of Koresh, from which the Prophet Muhammad Ibn Abdullah (ph) came: that is, the founder of the Islamic religion.

GROSS: What was his real background?

EVANZZ: He was actually born in New Zealand to a Pakistani father and to a mother who was white-skinned, and not only white-skinned but Jewish by birth. She was raised, though, the Muslims say, by Muslims, so she was -- she practiced Islam. And he was, in effect, a mulatto who left New Zealand at an early age, I think around the age of 17 or so, and arrived in America via Canada around 1913.

GROSS: I believe it was his first wife who he told he was white.

EVANZZ: Yes, in fact, there are marital records in the FBI's files -- which are online, by the way, at -- that show clearly that Fard, or Wallace D. Ford (ph), which was his real name, was listed as a Caucasian.

GROSS: How did Elijah Muhammad end up taking over the Nation of Islam?

EVANZZ: What happened in 1932, November 21, to be exact, a Muslim in Detroit killed another man, and the reason he killed him was because he had held this sacrificial murder in his apartment. Fard had taught that in order to go to heaven, or to Mecca, his followers had to kill four white people or four people who were unrighteous. And so this man was recorded as unrighteous by this Muslim named Robert Karim (ph), and he's killed in Robert Karim's apartment.

Robert Karim's two young children are watching this entire incident, as are 12 members of the Nation of Islam, who have to bear witness.

After the murder, the police come, because they hear the kids screaming, you know, telling their father not to kill this man. And the police arrive and they arrest Karim. In custody, Karim says that his God is Wallace D. Fard. So the police go to the Fraymore (ph) Hotel in Detroit, find Fard, arrest him, and take him into custody. They book him and tell him that if he doesn't leave Detroit, he will be arrested -- I'm sorry, indicted as an accessory to murder.

So rather than be indicted, Fard decides to leave Detroit. And he stays away for exactly six months. He sneaks back into Detroit in May 1933, and again is arrested at the Fraymore Hotel. At that point, he leaves the Nation permanently and goes back to Los Angeles. So that was the disappearance.

Once he leaves, though, Elijah Muhammad begins to teach something different. He says that Wallace D. Fard was not the Prophet of God, but in fact was God Himself, and that he, Elijah Muhammad, is the Prophet now. He's the last Messenger of Allah.

So this is how he established his base of authority of his rise to power.

GROSS: What are some of the other claims that Elijah Muhammad ended up making about himself?

EVANZZ: Well, he made many claims. He said that there was a mother plane, for example, hovering above this country that only he could see, and that this plane was going to ring out bombs once Allah gave the signal, that is to say, once Wallace D. Fard gave the signal, and completely destroy America. It would destroy Europe, Russia, and America, and everybody else, and that in fact these bombs would kill all the white people in the world and only leave minority races to run the world.

That was one of the teachings. He also talked about his ability to communicate with Martians, and he said that life actually began on Mars, and that he had seen Martians. He described them, of course, a description fitting the typical Martian description that you hear in the sci-fi novels.

He also taught that he, again, was the final link between heaven and earth, and that once he converted 144,000 African-Americans to Islam, he would then have to go throughout the world and reeducate Muslims all over the country whom he said were believing in a false Islam. In other words, he said the orthodox Muslims were not really practicing Islam, that the only real true Islam was the one that he taught.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Karl Evanzz. He's the author of the new book "The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad."

You know, your book has many different stories that you follow. There's, of course, the story of Elijah Muhammad. There's also the story of the FBI, and how it attempted to infiltrate the Nation of Islam and how it attempted to destroy the Nation. What were some of the tactics that the FBI used to try to discredit the Nation of Islam?

EVANZZ: Well, they tried everything under the sun. This included trying to destroy Elijah Muhammad's marriage to his wife, Clara, it included planting newspaper stories where it talked about Wallace D. Fard being a Nazi criminal who had escaped and come to America, that was one of the early stories that the press did pick up, by the way. It planted stories claiming that Wallace -- that Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X were having a bitter feud, which was not true at the time, but which became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And they just -- they used everything they could think of, essentially. They tried to, for example, pay members of the Nation of Islam to become informants, and some actually did.

GROSS: Well, one of the techniques that the FBI used to try to infiltrate the Nation of Islam was to cover up the faces of some of the white agents with shoe polish and other black cosmetics.

EVANZZ: Yes, yes, that was one of the more hilarious things that they did. In 1941, again, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the FBI is greatly concerned about the Japanese influence within the Nation. And rather than hire black agents, they do as you said, got black -- got makeup artists to put black makeup on agents' faces, white FBI agents' faces and hands and, you know, crop their hair very short, and send them to visit the mosques around the country.

Thinking they had fooled these people, by the way, fooled the Muslims into believing that they were black, but as one letter points out, that's mentioned in the book, by the way, the secretary said there were four white devils here tonight. She was writing to Elijah Muhammad. She says, "Four white devils came to the mosque tonight trying to get in. They were ridiculously dressed and they looked like fools."

So the makeup didn't fool anyone, probably because their eyes, I will suppose, gave them away. I would imagine they were probably brown-eyed or blue-eyed or whatever. But clearly did not look like black people with this bad makeup job on.

GROSS: My guest is Karl Evanzz, author of the new book "The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Karl Evanzz, author of a new biography of the former leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad. Part of the book is based on documents that Evanzz got declassified through the Freedom of Information Act.

What did the FBI do to create a rift, or to try to create a rift, between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X?

EVANZZ: They began to send forged letters, with Malcolm's signature forged, to Elijah Muhammad saying various nasty things, or a letter written by -- purportedly written by Malcolm X where he was talking to someone else about undermining Elijah Muhammad. At the same time, they were sending Elijah -- Malcolm X letters with Elijah Muhammad's signature saying nasty things and also send tapes or phony tapes and transcripts of tapes saying that Elijah Muhammad was out to discredit Malcolm X.

So they caused confusion in that sense, and they sent -- leaked stories to the press saying that Malcolm X was trying to take over the Nation of Islam and that Elijah Muhammad was furious about it.

So gradually Elijah Muhammad began to believe some of this misinformation, and it led to Malcolm's ouster. When Malcolm made that comment about President Kennedy being assassinated, as the case (ph) with chickens coming home to roost, Elijah Muhammad used that as a pretext to get rid of Malcolm X.

GROSS: Do you think of the FBI as being behind the assassination of Malcolm X, even though they didn't orchestrate the actual assassination?

EVANZZ: Yes. Well, again, the FBI took credit for creating the atmosphere. But you certainly can't blame the entire thing on the FBI. Again, once the scandal broke, Elijah Muhammad became determined that Eli -- that Malcolm X would not use the scandal to destroy the Nation of Islam. So early on, after the scandal breaks -- this was -- when I say early on, I mean by the summer of 1963 -- Elijah Muhammad is already talking about having Malcolm killed.

And there's one conversation in the book, for example, where Elijah Muhammad is talking to Minister Farrakhan and he says, and very clearly he says, "We have to close his eyes," referring to Malcolm X.

In August of 1964, Elijah Muhammad calls a meeting of all his top Laborers, which include all of his ministers and the top officials in the Nation of Islam. These are only men, by the way. The Laborers are men. And at this meeting, Elijah Muhammad spoke for seven and a half hours. And he says repeatedly that Malcolm X is the chief hypocrite who must be stopped at all costs.

So clearly Elijah Muhammad was as culpable as the FBI in provoking the situation which led to Malcolm X's assassination.

GROSS: Of course, some of the rift between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad had to do with Malcolm X's own growth, for instance, his visit to Mecca, in which he was introduced to a more orthodox form of Islam that wasn't -- that didn't coincide with the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.

EVANZZ: Right, it was -- yes, it was true Islam that he met, that he was introduced to, really for the first time. And Eli -- when Malcolm X did make the Hajj in 1964, he had come to the realization that indeed white-skinned Muslims existed all over the world, and that they were just as bona fide a Muslim as anyone else.

So again, you mentioned that the break would have come ultimately anyway. That's very true. Elijah -- Malcolm X was a very brilliant man and was not about to allow dogma to stand in the way of the truth.

GROSS: Elijah Muhammad died of congestive heart failure in 1975. Louis Farrakhan took over leadership of the Nation of Islam, still is in that leadership position. Do you know what Elijah Muhammad thought of Farrakhan, and if he had hoped that Farrakhan would succeed him?

EVANZZ: I don't think he ever hoped or believed that Farrakhan would succeed him. In fact, he said that since he was the Seal of God's promise, just the last Messenger of God, there was no need for a successor. And so that -- in that sense, he didn't believe Wallace Muhammad, his son, or Farrakhan or anyone else would have to come along behind him.

What he did say was that after he died, there would be a new Islam in this country, and he never specified how it would be new and different. His son, though, said, Wallace Muhammad said that in fact, his father wanted to move the nation away from race-based religion to true Islam. And this is one of the things that Wallace Muhammad did immediately upon his father's death.

Also, the book points out for the first time that Elijah Muhammad in 1964 completely changed his beliefs about white people, that he has recorded interviews where he says, "We have to stop calling the white man the devil, because we got plenty of black devils out there too," and that "Evil knows no race, creed, or color."

This is something that Minister Farrakhan has completely ignored for more than 25 years. But I'm hoping with this recent epiphany that he announced in Chicago that he will finally accept the truth of that and tell his followers that, in fact, Elijah Muhammad was ready at the time of his death to bring the Nation of Islam into true orthodox Islam.

GROSS: I wasn't aware that Farrakhan had said that.

EVANZZ: Yes, well, he had an epiphany recently again. He said where he had had a near-death experience, and he was only three minutes away from death, according to his own doctors, and that as a result of that, he was going to stop preaching hate and start preaching that all men are created equal in God's eyes. And he was going to make other announcements -- I'm sorry, other revelations on February 26 of this year, which is the so-called Savior's Day, which is held in Chicago, usually.

GROSS: You're very critical of the Nation of Islam and of Elijah Muhammad, but I'm wondering if you think that the Nation has also done a lot of good in helping people in prison, teaching discipline, teaching good diet, telling people to refrain from taking drugs, things like that.

EVANZZ: Yes, again, I -- the book is called "The Rise and Fall," so there's obviously the negative aspect. But again, the light side, or the bright side, where the Nation of Islam really was a powerful force in the black community, they talk about, you know, the evils, for example, of eating pork, how it affected the human body. So they talked about eating a clean -- eating clean meat and only eating meats recommended by, you know, for example, the Holy Bible or the Koran.

Eat properly, take care of yourself, don't smoke, don't drink, become economically independent, that is to say, try to get a job, if you can't find a job in the public sector or the private sector, I will give you a job. In other words, he Washington telling his people to be good citizens, which is kind of ironic, because he said America was falling, but he repeats over and over and over again that the bottom line was that we had to be good citizens and by virtue of that saying, be good Americans.

So he did a great deal of good, in other words -- is the bottom line, I think.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Karl Evanzz, author of the new book "The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad."

Have you ever had any personal connections to the Nation of Islam? Did you ever consider joining when you were younger, or have people close to you who were members?

EVANZZ: Yes, as I say, you know, some of my best friends are Muslims. I have an uncle who's actually a member of the Los Angeles mosque headed by Farrakhan right now. He's been in there for over 25 years. I had many friends in high school who joined the Nation of Islam. And I considered joining the Nation of Islam when I was about 17 in the late 1960s. I don't remember...

GROSS: Why did you want to join then?

EVANZZ: They were -- again, they were doing the only positive things that I saw in the black community. I grew up in the ghetto in St. Louis, and, you know, we had street gangs and a lot of what amounted to self-hatred going on. The Muslims came along, and they were always well dressed, always, you know, looking healthy, and always talking about peace and brotherhood. So I was attracted to that. I mean, they were regarded as, you know, the most awesome black group in the black community.

So I began visiting their mosque there in St. Louis and seriously considered joining. Only until -- only after I saw the dark side of the Nation of Islam did I reconsider that as an option.

GROSS: How did you get exposed to that dark side?

EVANZZ: Well, I had a friend, a young man named Tommy who had gone to the mosque with me one Sunday. Tommy had had a drug problem, and he also had an alcohol problem. And this day, he had had something to drink, and was not sober. At any rate, he was sitting a few rows behind me, and he sat up -- he stood up at one point during the discussion and asked the minister, how was it possible for black people to create a black nation when we had very few doctors and lawyers and engineers and all that?

And the minister was outraged by the statement for some reason. He just flew off the cuff -- flew off the handle. And when he did that, when he expressed his dismay over Tommy's comment, four or five guards attacked Tommy and beat him mercilessly. They kicked him in the face, in his eye, and just, you know, started administering karate chops and everything, and beat him horribly.

When I saw Tommy after these (ph) -- and they held him, by the way, and dismissed everyone else -- the next time I saw Tommy, he had blood spots in his eye, his face was completely swollen up. They had knocked out one of his teeth. And when I saw that barbarity by someone who professes to love black people, I was completely alienated about the Nation of Islam at that point.

GROSS: I'm wondering, when you meet people in the Nation of Islam who either read your book or have listened to you tell them about your findings and about, for instance, finding that the founder of the Nation of Islam, Wallace D. Fard, was really a fraud, that...

EVANZZ: A petty criminal, right.

GROSS: Yes, that he'd been a petty criminal, that he built this phony identity for himself. Do the people who are in the Nation think that you're wrong, or does it make them reconsider the teachings within the Nation?

EVANZZ: Again, some are reacting positively in that they have an open mind and they are willing to consider the founder's background. The comparison I like to draw for them, to make them more, you know, amenable to listen -- listening to what I'm saying, is that you have to bear in mind that Elijah Muhammad also had a criminal record, which is discussed in the book, I mean, that the drinking thing, and he was charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors at one point in his life.

Malcolm X had an extensive criminal record. But that didn't change who they became. And so my argument is that Wallace D. Fard, yes, he had a shady background, and even a criminal background. But he tried to change his life in midstream and became at least respectable to -- in the black community's eyes. Everything he did, of course, was not positive. In fact, much of it was far from positive.

But the point is that anyone is capable of changing. And, in fact, this is where Louis Farrakhan is today. He's been preaching racial hatred and anti-Semitism for over 40 years. But now he's come to the realization that this is a new era and that no one is going to keep buying that argument. And he's now announcing or claiming to announce or preparing to announce that he's going to change the focus of his group.

GROSS: Well, Karl Evanzz, I thank you very much for talking with us.

EVANZZ: Well, thank you very much.

GROSS: Karl Evanzz is the author of "The Prophet: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad."

Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the new popularity of the word "virtual."

This is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Karl Evanzz
High: Karl Evanzz is an online editor at The Washington Post and author of "The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad." Muhammad was the founder and "prophet" of the Nation of Islam. Evanzz has talked to Muhammad's children, his apostles, and has had access to previously unreleased FBI files about him.
Spec: Elijah Muhammad; Minorities; Religion; Politics

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Karl Evanzz Discusses His Book on Elijah Muhammad

Date: FEBRUARY 17, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 021703NP.217
Head: Why Is the Word `Virtual' Virtually Everywhere?
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:56

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: As the computer becomes more and more a part of our lives, the word "virtual" does too. Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, traces the origin of the word and how it's come to imply a whole new world living inside our computers.

GEOFF NUNBERG, LINGUIST: It's always odd when a word is pulled from the wings and suddenly thrust into a starring role. Take "virtual," which has been doing solid journeyman work in English since Chaucer's time. It's related to "virtue," of course, but not in the moral sense of the word. It's derived from the old use of "virtue" to mean "essence" or "capability," the sense that still survives in the phrase, "in virtue of."

So "virtual" means roughly "in essence," or "for all practical purposes," as when you say that so-and-so ruled as a virtual king.

"Virtual's" recent vogue started as a walk-on role when engineers found that a useful term to describe the computer's ability to create simulations. Virtual memory is a way of faking RAM that you don't actually have, and a virtual machine is the kind of system that lets your Macintosh pretend it's a PC or vice versa.

But those are technical terms, and they don't really stretch the original meaning of the word. The adjective didn't capture the public imagination until the late 1980s, when the term "virtual reality" was coined to describe systems that simulate various kinds of sensory experience.

The basic technology may have been old hat, as such things go. NASA had been building digital flight simulators since the 1960s. But the use of "virtual" had a kind of trippy allure that wasn't present with its rival, "artificial," which figured in phrases like "artificial intelligence."

"Artificial" just referred to the computer's ability to simulate offline reality with the implication that life was elsewhere, whereas "virtual" suggested that the machines could not just imitate life but create an alternate reality of their own.

It was an appealing notion to a public that had been primed by video games or by the cyberspace novels of William Gibson. And don't forget the 1982 movie "Tron," the first of that world-in-the-computer genre that would reach its full flower in movies like "The Matrix," not to mention all those Intel Inside ads.

In any case, that was all it took to open the floodgates. Look at the way people are using "virtual" now, and you have the sense of a vast phantom world that's assembling itself on the other side of the screen. There are the virtual malls full of virtual stores with virtual shelves and virtual shopping carts. There are virtual universities full of virtual classrooms, virtual banks full of virtual money, virtual libraries full of virtual books published by virtual publishers.

You see references to virtual sculpture, which usually involves computer renderings of three-dimensional objects, and to virtual poetry, which I have some trouble distinguishing from the old-fashioned sort.

And people even talk about virtual facsimiles. When I first saw that one, it had the sound of a major metaphysical breakthrough. It was something of a letdown to realize it just referred to a fax you send via your PC.

The striking thing about "virtual" is the way it slips between the real and the illusory without tipping its hand. Sometimes it just depends who's uttering it. When the techno-enthusiasts use an expression like "virtual voter," it probably refers to real voters who use the Internet. For them, it's just one of the new categories created by the technology that are going to transform social life, virtual communities, virtual town halls, or the virtual commons, a kind of assembly area for the Republic of Pixels.

For critics, though, the phrase "virtual voter" is more likely to be a fictitious voter created by computer fraud. For them, the adjective "virtual" usually signals the technology's ability to create deceptive simulations and illusions.

But there's a common thread in the way everybody uses "virtual" too. Whether the things you're talking about are real or not, the adjective always suggests a kind of digital exceptionality, the idea that the effects of the technology are so unprecedented and so powerful that we need a new word to describe them.

There was a striking example in the recent story about the young man in Florida who was arrested for sending a threatening message via an Internet chat group to one of the survivors of the Columbine massacre. According to the young man's lawyer, his client was a victim of an addiction to the Internet, as he put it, "It was a virtual threat made in a virtual state of mind."

That seems something of a stretch, even for a word as elastic as "virtual." But then, why not? It seems a natural extension of the frenzy for discerning new virtualities wherever a new button pops up on a screen. You think of the way people were blaming the Littleton killings themselves on video games that promoted virtual violence, or on Internet sites that had created a virtual Munich beer hall for disaffected teenagers.

But it also rests on a more general assumption that everything that happens online is unprecedented, and answers to its own virtual logic. So why shouldn't we make special allowances for the fantasies that people act out in virtual states of mind? It's a new world in there.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, Geoff Nunberg
High: Linguist Geoff Nunberg discusses the word "virtual" as in "virtual reality."
Spec: Computers; Internet; Technology

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Why Is the Word `Virtual' Virtually Everywhere?
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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