I was born in 1959, so I was a child at what I would call the pinnacle of the civil rights movement, and so I looked at it from a child’s perspective. It is always interesting to look back at the past and compare how we experienced something at the time and compare that to what we now know looking back with more context. At the time, I knew there was a lot of change happening, and lots of discussions about justice in the house, but I didn’t have the historical context and worldly experiences to understand the why of it all. I remember vividly the assassination of Martin Luther King, which I am shocked to remember was 50 years ago this coming April.
It seems to me like it was only yesterday, I remember watching when a special news report came on the television and interrupted whatever I was watching to announce it, I ran upstairs to announce it to the family like I was the herald of bad news to see the shocked faces of everyone tinged maybe with a little fear. Now every time I see a special news report interrupt my show, I expect it to be something as shocking, but it is often something mundane and I start into my grumpy old man routine, When I was young they would only break into regularly scheduled shows with news reports if someone was assassinated. My family thankfully tolerates me. But that is how the mind works, important events, are etched into our brains.
On the left here is a picture just moments after King was shot in the Lorraine hotel in Memphis Tenn. On the right is how it the façade looks today maintained as it looked then, to etch that moment in time in memory, but inside the hotel today is a national civil rights museum that is worth taking a trip to Memphis to see. I knew less about Malcolm X at the time, as he was assassinated when I was only 6, except for the fact that his assassination occurred in the neighborhood my grandparents lived in, so that raised a lot of tension and fear about safety.
There was been a pattern in our country in the 1960s of voices of color who spoke out against oppression being silenced, and so it is not to surprising that we do not have that one clarion voice today but rather leadership is decentralized. In the 60s the two largest voices were Martin Luther King and Malcolm X often are portrayed as in conflict with each other, but as with anything the story is much more complex. And it is important to look back at it in context to see the trajectories of their lives and their ministries and they how evolved over time and intersected and complemented each other. Both King and X were children of preachers.
King grew up in a middle class household. His father was a prominent and respected preacher, businessperson and on the board of the local NAACP. And although he did constantly run up against Jim Crow segregation laws, Martin grew up in Atlanta with strong family and community support. He was raised within an environment that stressed self help through economic, educational and moral development and that shielded him from the worst of racial violence at that time. He went to school at prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta and then seminary in Pennsylvania and to Boston Univ. for his doctorate. He grew up immersed in the Christian Church and his liberal education led him to embrace a more universalist attitude toward humanity. All of these experiences shaped his integrational attitudes towards race relations, which I think were succinctly summarized in a 1962 speech at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon Ia.
"(People) often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they do not know each other; they do not know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated” .
Malcolm X had a very different upbringing which led him to different conclusions. He grew up in the North. His father Earl was also a preacher but never found steady employment. Earl was a follower of Marcus Garvey who promoted Black Nationalism. Due to his father’s strident Black Nationalism, his family was forced out of Omaha by the KKK and their house was burned in Michigan, and Malcom’s father was subsequently murdered, which left Malcom, his mother and siblings in dire poverty, and the family was broken up by social services. Unlike Martin, Malcolm was not protected, and lived in abject poverty.
As theologian James Cone writes about him “In the ghetto where survival was an arduous task and violence was an everyday experience, nonviolence was not a meaningful option and most even regarded the promotion of it as a sign of weakness and lack of courage.”
Here is a clip of Malcolm X speaking about Black Nationalism.
Quoting James Cone. “Unlike integrationists, nationalists do not define their significance and purpose as a people by appealing to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, or even the white man’s religion of Christianity. On the contrary, nationalists define their identity by their determination to create a society based on their own African history and culture.”
And Malcolm X after a very hard life, while in prison found a foundation for these beliefs in the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad. This religion provided discipline and support for the African American Community. Malcolm X rose in the ranks to its highest levels. He often proposed violence as a way for African Americans to defend themselves against White oppression, although interestingly, I can find no record of Malcolm X actually using or ordering violence, just threatening it. Now to be clear we should not confuse the Nation of Islam with traditional Islam. There are some similarities, but most mainstream Muslims did not and do not consider them Muslim. But they did instill self reliance and pride in being of African descent and were virulently anti-christian calling it the religion of their oppressors often telling his followers not to love their enemy, but rather to love themselves.
Malcolm X’s exile from the Nation started soon after his comment about President Kennedy’s assassination when he said, “the seeds that America has sown in enslavement, in many things that followed since then, all these seeds were coming up today; it was harvest time, the chickens have come home to roost.” We probably remember this line from Rev. Jerimiah Wright in regard to 9-11. With the negative publicity of this statement and uncovering improprieties by Elijah Muhammad, Malcom X was ostracized from the Nation of Islam. With his religious foundation and dogma gone, he found a new intellectual freedom that came along with a personal foundation of empowerment.
He took a pilgrimage to Mecca and his life was transformed. Learning about traditional Islam, he said he had a ""spiritual rebirth"
"What I have seen and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions…Here in this ancient holy land. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe could never exist between the white and the non-white….You may be shocked by these words coming from me…but I have always been a man who tries to face facts and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it.”
That almost sounds Unitarian Universalist to me. When Malcolm X came back to the United States he spoke often and to wider audiences then just inner city poor Blacks, including college students and labor unions and the socialist worker party saying things such as
"It is not a case of our people . . . wanting either separation or integration….The use of these words actually clouds the real picture. The 22 million Afro-Americans don't seek either separation or integration. They seek recognition and respect as human beings.”
And although he did not abdicate the use of violence, he moved closer to Martin Luther King in seeking reconciliation and justice with whites as opposed to separation and nationalism. And just 9 months after he returned from Mecca he was assassinated presumably by the Nation of Islam for speaking against them. His profound transformation shows us what is possible. Transforming hate into love. Not abandoning ones principles or even tactics but seeing a wider more inclusive world view.
Sometimes it does take getting outside our bubble and hearing other perspectives and seeing other models that can lead to success and even realizing a different definition of what success is, but most of all it requires being open to change. Martin Luther King upon hearing about Malcolm’s death sent the following cable to X’s wife.
“While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race”
We tend these days to idolize King, and in doing so, we should note that just as Malcolm X had a transformation, and moved closer to King’s position, so too did King move more towards a militancy albeit a peaceful one as he became impatient with white moderates and even African Americans allies who challenged him especially when he took a stand against the Vietnam War where he recognized in the Vietnamese’s struggle the same struggle that African Americans had in this country. And after numerous riots in 1967, he gave a famous speech At Stamford, called the other America where while not agreeing with rioting, understood their nature. .
And so to hear the unheard, we must listen and now we must be transformed knowing what we know. We thought we had been to the mountaintop, but the truth is with every mountain there is another valley beyond it to walk through to get to the next pinnacle. Karl Marx said
“People make their own history but they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstance directly encountered, given and transformed from the past.” We have seen how King and X were shaped by their upbringings, and transformed by the circumstances in their lives.
So now knowing what we know, In the circumstances we face today, with the increase of racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and anti-semitism, how will we make history. Will we be like the quiet Germans who looked away during Nazi Germany, or Will we stand up to hate and build the beloved community. Are we willing to take direct action to put forth our values into the world. Will we stand with all who are oppressed. Are we willing to speak the truth to power and put us back on the path of freedom.
This last week we saw yet another physical assault on immigrants, with a decree to deport over 100,000 Haitian and Salvadorian refugees who have been living here legally for over a decade due to extreme hardship in their home country. Last week we saw yet another in a long history of verbal and twitter racist assaults on immigrants and people of color from the leader of this country using vulgar and dehumanizing words to describe people of color from other countries and wishing more white people from Norway would emigrate here. And he is not the only world leader to try and dehumanize immigrants
Other eastern European leaders have called immigrants criminals, poison, diseased. We have seen this before in history. We have seen it in the lead up to sending Jews to the gas chambers. We have seen in our country when we considered Africans property and not people, we have seen it in every war propaganda depicting our enemy
Dehumanizing people is the first step to convincing people to harm others. 19th Century Unitarian Ralph Waldo Emerson said “People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.”
So it is up to us to shine a mirror on the leaders of this country so all can see their despicable character. So they know that we do not hold their values, that we show the community that we believe in humanizing people, that we need to recognize and respect that every human has worth and dignity, every human being deserves justice, equity and compassion.
We as a country need a spiritual rebirth. We need to combine the messages of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X to affect change. They showed us individual change is possible, and they showed us that people from all walks of life in the right place and time can rise and affect change in the world. Now is the time. Now is the place. We need to rise up and act against this morally corrupt government. As philosopher John Stuart Mills said “Bad (people) need nothing more to achieve their ends, than that good (people) should look on and do nothing” Let us keep Martin and Malcolm’s legacy alive by doing something to stop this.
I invite you to write letters to your elected officials. I invite you to join us this Friday and every Friday at noon at Senators Grassley and Ernst’s office to bear witness and to bring attention to the moral failings of this government, I invite you to work for voter turnout at the next election. I invite you gather with our social justice teams and let us be united with our partners in the community in our work to stand up to injustice. Let us listen to those who are suffering and let us follow them, not just to the mountain top, but into the streets and wherever else is necessary until justice wells up like water and righteousness like an unfailing stream.
We have past the pinnacle of civil rights and we are now in the valley of despair, so it is time to climb that mountain again, To remember the dreams of those who died in the struggle To remember that we are not in the promised land yet, it is still in the distance, and we cannot tire. The time to start climbing again is now. It will take all of us. May the spirit move us to make it so