Martin & Malcolm & America

GREGORY STEPHENS

January 20, 1992|By GREGORY STEPHENS

America now celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. as an officialAmerican hero, but for African Americans Malcolm X is increasingly the prophet of choice. Rap artists and film maker Spike Lee have not only brought Malcolm back to center stage but frequently dismiss King as irrelevant.

In fact, scholars today tend to the view that toward the ends of their tragically brief lives, Martin and Malcolm were not that far apart in their philosophies. Each had moved to accommodate the other's views. In his book ''Martin & Malcolm & America,'' the African American theologian James Cone sees that movement as a clue to the fact that ''Each spoke a truth about America that cannot be fully comprehended without the insights of the other.''

Ironically, institutionalization of the King holiday has often resulted in a sanitized version of King. By contrast, those most responsible for the resurgence of interest in Malcolm have tended to focus exclusively on Malcolm's anti-white phase -- ignoring the coalition-builder that emerged after his pilgrimage to Mecca.

Today our memory of Martin and Malcolm frames contemporary race relations. Those who remember only King's dream risk being unprepared to deal with the nightmare that is the legacy of that dream deferred. And those who focus only on Malcolm as a ''prophet of rage'' risk being trapped in a hall of mirrors in which images of an unredeemable enemy control their destiny.

Malcolm and Martin were both sons of Baptist ministers, but their life histories were very different. Martin's father, Martin King Sr., was a Republican, a pillar of the Atlanta community. Malcolm's father, Earl Little, was a roving ''jackleg'' preacher, an ardent follower of the black nationalist Marcus Garvey. While Martin grew up in a nurturing family, Malcolm's father was killed when he was six, and his mother was committed to a mental institution when he was 12.

Malcolm went on to become first a con man and then a Black Muslim minister. In his last year Malcolm came to view both those periods as phases in which he had been acting out roles designed by someone else. So the last year of his life was the only period when he was thinking and speaking for himself.

During his pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm encountered blond-haired, blue-eyed Muslims who were part of the Islamic community. ''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,'' he recalled.

Malcolm discarded black nationalism as a philosophy after traveling in Africa.

He tried to make alliances with King. But ''the media were not interested in the 'new Malcolm,' only the old one,'' as Mr. Cone notes. Malcolm was acutely aware of being trapped by his image of intolerance.

After Malcolm's death, Martin redefined his own philosophy. The ''new'' Martin was very different from the dreamer at the March on Washington. King went against the advice of both black and white advisers in the civil-rights movement when he came out against the Vietnam war. He began to call for a ''radical restructuring'' of American resources and values.

As Martin moved North and began addressing the urban blacks who had been Malcolm's primary audience, he realized he was dealing with two communities -- one black, one white -- that spoke mutually unintelligible languages. ''You can't communicate with the ghetto dweller and at the same time not frighten many whites to death,'' he observed. Yet King continued to try to persuade both blacks and whites to move forward and imagine a common ground.

The lives of Martin and Malcolm were a ''chronology of changes,'' as Malcolm told his biographer, Alex Haley. The best way to honor their visions is not to turn them into competing icons but to learn from how both opened themselves to change '' and were willing to redefine their own thinking. To freeze their words in time as if they have some scriptural finality is to deny the meaning of their lives.

Gregory Stephens wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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