Especially in the political arena, or in the arena of ideas, it’s tempting to project what a famous dead person would stand were he or she still alive today–and especially if that person died tragically in the prime of life.
This conjecture often takes place with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Even his relatives get in on the act on where Martin, or Daddy, would stand on affirmative action, world hunger, birth control, pollution, etc.
They figure he would embrace the ideas he embraced before taken from us, which means, of course, Dr. King, a renown champion of justice for the little people, would be a proponent of affirmative action, would cry foul at what’s going on in the welfare program, etc.
The truth is, however, we don’t really know where King would have stood on these issues today. Given his highly public work with uplifting the disenfranchised, we can assume his ideas would not have changed very much. I know I would.
But the truth of the matter is that people sometimes change. Take Eldridge Cleaver.
And I would say “please” here, but I couldn’t without feeling I’d be unwarrantedly picking on some troubled soul no longer with us. (He left us in 1998—they’re right; time does really get on up.)
But Cleaver was a volatile, card-carrying, police–make that “pig”–confronting Black Panther during the group’s heyday of the 1960s and 1970s. This guy had nary a problem recommending the torching of America, and replacing it with a more just society.
But, as anyone who follows these things knows, Cleaver ended up being a cheerleader for the very American way of life he once despised. Heavens, the man ended up being a Republican.
Malcolm, of course, was assassinated in the mid-1960s. I was in the eleventh-grade at the time, where I joined my fellow nationalist classmates—four of us in all–in wearing black armbands to show our collective sorrow.
But I thought of Malcolm recently when I was thinking just where he would stand in these discordant Trumpian times. Shit’s really getting tight out there, isn’t it?
Based on his history, Malcolm would have still been plugging away at this nation’s injustices, especially against people of color. So yes, keep the heat on the simpleton in chief. This is certainly no time to join the ranks of Omarosa, Herman Cain and that preacher with the trimmed beard and who’s always with Omorasa when she’s selling out. Malcolm would be reminding us that this, the black struggle in America, is simply one of many struggles that have taken place on this globe, and that if we are to get out of our predicament, we need to follow the examples of the successful strugglers.
I interviewed his brother once, for a newspaper during the nineteen-nineties, and he told me that, contrary to what he said were modern-day revisionist historians who try to place Malcolm as an integrationist just before his death, Malcolm remained a black nationalist. I would like to think he would be that now.
But, of course, I don’t really know. He could have begun hanging out with Cleaver and Clarence Thomas and those of that ilk; he could have become a Republican or a “minority spokesman” for Newt Gingrich. I don’t really know. Like I said, people change sometimes.
But I do know he contributed mightily to the black cause while he was around, and I believe those strategies are still effective today, even if he would have changed his mind about espousing them now. And I know his legacy lives.
Malcolm, more than any other U.S. black leader, placed our struggle in a human context.
Black leadership for the most part consists of urging the country to do the moral thing and treat its black citizenry right.
It recognizes people’s aversion to change, which means it recognizes that blacks are outnumbered and out-armed, and often directs its pace to accommodate these variables. This leadership also extols the resourcefulness of a people who have come through a living hell on Earth. They in fact delight in giving examples. The overall message is that blacks are special, special good, if you support their cause, and special bad, if you don’t.
hey put the struggle in some moral context, the end result hopefully the coming together of whites and blacks, with each group bearing equal responsibility to making this happen.
Even the special-good camp–white liberals, mainly, but often blacks themselves, albeit unwittingly sometimes–see blacks as being uncivilized (though they would not use that word), and that their freedom lay in their becoming less uncouth so as to make the greater white society accept them. (“I understand the frustration, but why do black men hang on corners when there are so many opportunities now?”)
Malcolm’s vocabulary destroyed this by calling it what it is–bullcrap. He said blacks are human beings like any other human beings, and should be accorded the same treatment other humans picked out for suffering have been accorded.
That’s what he meant when he said blacks should take their plight to the United Nations, since that is what every other oppressed group does. (It’s significant that no mainstream black U.S. leader has picked up this call.) Malcolm said blacks did not have to reinvent the wheel to gain a victory in their struggle. King’s struggle was based on an anomaly, Ghandi’s successful non-violent strategy to get the British out of their land. But most struggles—Malcolm called them “revolutions”–involved the oppressed taking their plight into their own hands, as opposed to forming an alliance with the very people you have a beef with.
Heck, to emphasize his point, and he was brilliant at illuminating points, Malcolm reminded his audiences that what he advocated was indeed practiced by the very country whose leadership demanded that blacks do less for their freedom.
And irony on top of ironies, it was the very same country that would send blacks to fight for them on foreign shores for people who suffered just as much as blacks did back home.
Malcolm also unveiled to blacks that they were Africans, and not–and this is very important–in some required-dashiki wearing way (though there is certainly not anything wrong in dressing African), but in a factual way. He said in effect that their struggles were tied in to the liberation of Africa, since the subjugation of the continent began all their woes. When black people heard him, they didn’t feel so much like they were in the minority anymore.
Malcolm, in short, told black people to come out of the box of alternatives offered them by American society in the civil rights movement. He said you do not have to accept any of those choices. You didn’t have to sit around and invent choices either, when you had so many successful examples of others who struggle like you.
I guess he was saying, You’re grown, and act like it. When you think about it, that’s about the best any political leader can tell you.