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Malcolm’s MLK Problem

Today marks the anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination, forty-two years ago, as he began speaking at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. He was killed most likely by thugs from the Nation of Islam. His absence from the scene has been no less consequential, for the wrong reasons, than that of other great social or liberal leaders assassinated between 1963 and 1968. Myths and lesser leaders filled the vacuum. We’re still feeling the effects: liberalism and black leadership have been in co-dependent stagnation since. Fear of Malcolm, who was no liberal, and a fetishism for centrism, are among the reasons. This piece was initially published in the News-Journal in 2003 (I’ve been busy preparing Friday’s ACLU lecture, so original material is forcibly limited).

Comparing Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X, King has generally struck me as the duller, safer of the two. That’s especially true every February, when schools and media condescend to let black culture out of its 11-month ghetto for the 28 days of Black History Month. In tributes and essays, in quotes and pieties on the coattails of the “dream” speech, King is trotted out on a white leash as a predictable and unthreatening showpiece. Teachers pawn him off on schoolchildren as the great voice of nonviolence (even as they have the same kids write letters to soldiers, a fifth of them black, heading for war against another dark-skinned race). Newspapers splash his name in headlines to fill their diversity quota for the year. By month’s end the annual debt to black memory will have been paid, at least in words. And the national curriculum will resume its usual carnage of white history in the making, as oblivious to King’s legacy of nonviolence as it will be to black culture for the next 11 months.

The dullard treatment of King and the nonexistent treatment of Malcolm reflect how averse the white commemoration of black culture has become to the actual meaning of diversity. The two are split off from what should have been chapters of the same story. It’s an ironic segregation of the “right” kind of black leader from the “wrong” kind. I once brought a portrait of Malcolm to hang above my desk at another newspaper. Not acceptable, I was told, “too political,” even though the frame displayed Malcolm with a broad, bright smile, and the caption was a quote of his on how “history is best qualified to reward our research.” I was ordered to remove it. (The portrait had better luck at the News-Journal). The same verdict would have been unthinkable had I brought in a portrait of King. King is appropriate diversity. Malcolm isn’t. He’s the rattling kind, the troublemaking kind.

“’Conservatism’ in America’s politics means ‘Let’s keep the niggers in their place,’ “ Malcolm said in his autobiography. “And ‘liberalism’ means ‘Let’s keep the knee-grows in their place—but tell them we’ll treat them a little better; let’s fool them more, with more promises.’ With these choices, I felt that the American black man only needed to choose which one to be eaten by, the ‘liberal’ fox or the ‘conservative’ wolf—because both of them would eat him.” Malcolm chose to be neither’s lunch. Only self-reliance would do. Malcolm’s antipathy for integration was rooted in that idea. Whites chose to interpret it as an affront (“How dare he not want to integrate with us”), when it was merely the affirmation of an identity.

Malcolm can be problematic. His early years were those of a dope addict and thief, his middle years those of a brilliant firebrand, but also a racist. Whites like to claim his last year to counter his threatening middle years and say that in the end Malcolm was not a white-hater but a pacifist, of all things. There’s also his anti-Semitism, his misogyny, his weird allegiance to the Afrocentric foolishness of Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, even after Malcolm turned his back on the Nation. None of this diminishes the importance of a very public, Phoenix-like intellectual evolution that in many ways mirrored his culture’s. He struggled to create an ideology, stumbling more than succeeding. (“I know that my shortcomings are many,” he readily conceded). He died trying, and it is the honesty of his attempts that finally make him, despite the fierceness and the hostility, more affecting than King, and I think more authentic.

Because of his mistrust of integration and allowances for violence (the kind of freedom-seeking violence that inspired the American Revolution), Malcolm’s legacy seems more threatening than King’s, less manageable, less comprehensible on white terms. That doesn’t make it less valid or just as critical a legacy of black history, the discriminating gatekeepers of diversity notwithstanding. But if it took Congress until 1998 to approve legislation requiring the National Park Service to talk about slavery at Civil War sites—giving the Park Service until 2011 to comply—it’ll probably take a couple of generations for schools to spell Malcolm’s X without shivers.

King never really learned. The January 1965 issue of Playboy carried an interview of King by Alex Haley, who asked for King’s opinion of Malcolm. “He is very articulate,” King said, “but I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views. I have often wished that he would talk less of violence, because violence is not going to solve our problem.” The issue must have still been beneath a few college dorm mattresses when Malcolm was assassinated that February, as Medgar Evers and John Kennedy had been two years earlier, as Robert Kennedy and King himself would be three years hence, victims of an American sickness King only half understood (as his misunderstanding of Malcolm proves.)

Which is why a little more Malcolm and a little less King might be useful. Forcing more honest questions on race is only partly the reason. Forcing a more honest reckoning with America’s love affair with violence is the other, more powerful reason. “By any means necessary” may have been Malcolm’s most sensational phrase, but it was never more than a rallying cry in a rhetorical arsenal. In the latest, strangest instance of whites co-opting blacks, “By any means necessary” is now the motto of the Bush doctrine, a promise to annihilate any antagonist, real or imagined, making Malcolm more relevant than King these days. As Malcolm put it, “Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people.”

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