(Picture courtesy of Seattle Museum of History and Industry.)
This is an anniversary that we don’t celebrate, the date of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We are also greeting a new work on the life of Malcolm X. Ironically, these were two very different movements.
Rev. King preached and practiced non-violence in a time that saw oppression that today we reject. Young black people had grown up under a system that paved roads and established quality education, among other advantages, on the other side of town. When they walked on dirt roads to rickety buses to go to schools with leaky pipes and under-prepared teachers, they knew they were second class citizens. Of course, they also knew that the taxes that were taken out of their wages went to pay for that unequal system.
I went through high school in Virginia, in a high school that had an influx of students from Princess Anne High School when it closed rather than integrate. The road I drove to get to school ran through unpaved roads in the black part of town, by the black school that lacked any playground. While I saw these things, I wasn’t actively engaged in a struggle against them until college years. I credit Reverend King and his fellow activists all for engaging me and the rest of a society that didn’t awaken to injustice without having its eyes opened to it.
Inevitably, the strength of character that formed Rev. King’s approach was evidenced in different forms in society around him. Anger was an influence that radicalized many of his own race, as it did those who had struck out against black U.S. citizens from the worst element of society.
The outbursts that created riots in D.C. after the assassination of Dr. King had been boiling up for some time. Some elements used them to strengthen their own causes, on both sides of that racial divide.
I was confused at the time, myself, and recall being appalled at hearing Malcolm X quoted accusing Dr. King of subsidies and support from racist whites to keep his race from achieving what they earned. It’s still a matter of concern when I see people struggling to bring about civilized and progressive political and social achievements, who need to struggle against their own natural participants, because they aren’t being forceful enough.
Anger has a place. Since I experienced the kind of struggle that went into passing legislation, my anger boils up when I see the right wingers using every tactic available to them to fight against public interests. When I see tactics that aren’t emotionally satisfying, but that work, I can be annoyed but not enraged.
When Dr. King tamped potential violence down and made things happen, he earned the respect of all of us who benefit from his accomplishments. If nothing else, I want to make a basis for pride in my own efforts and support for the greatness we can achieve. If that effort support aren’t what all of my own side of the battle for progressive policies can see and recognize as positive – hopefully, like Dr. King I can see through to a future when by each of us creatively uses talents we possess to get to the mountaintop we’re aiming toward.
Sadly, author Manning Marable, passed away just days short of publication of his biography of Malcolm X.