A pacifist, King nevertheless knew the heat of battle

MIKE LITTWIN

January 18, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

The truest thing you can say about Martin Luther King Jr. is that he's history. You know what that means. You put a guy in the history book, you give him his own day and you end up losing much of what he was. Like the passion, the guts, the humanity.

He becomes one of those sum-up-his-life-and-times-in-a-single-sentence people. You can play along if you like.

George Washington . . . is father of our country.

Abe Lincoln . . . freed the slaves.

Martin Luther King . . . brought racial justice to the land.

And so, King is one of the official, government-approved Great Men. That means King gets the official, stay-between-the-lines Great Man treatment.

Beginning in the first grade, kids learn about King. And he becomes what they call in the teacher biz a value tale, which goes something like this: A believer in peace, King loved his fellow man, preached racial harmony and insisted all men are equal. Then he died for his principles.

In truth, they don't so much teach King as they canonize him. They canonize and they sanitize him. It's inevitable. And it's also inevitable that he begins to lose relevance to young people. For although King was killed not quite 25 years ago, that might as well be 100 years to a typical 13-year-old.

He was then. This is now.

Meanwhile, Malcolm X, though King's contemporary, seems fresh and new. Which is why you don't see any K caps on the heads of kids in the malls or on the streets.

Malcolm X got the movie (in which, ironically, Spike Lee sought to canonize and sanitize him). He gave us his "by any means necessary" credo, which frightened so many then and speaks to so many young blacks today. Although Lee emphasized Malcolm X's late conversion to the belief that white people were not devils, the essential Malcolm X preached black pride -- not racial harmony.

It is easy to see how Malcolm X's message of self-help is particularly relevant now. Lee made that point by opening his movie with the infamous tape of the Rodney King beating, which, however, might also have been used to make a point about Martin Luther King's life.

Some young people may have it all wrong about King and his belief in non-violent protest -- if they think that meant he was not confrontational. The essence of King's work was to stand up in the face of injustice.

Though King was a pacifist, it did not mean he was pacified. It was his rage that gave him the courage to face unarmed the billy clubs and bullwhips and shotguns in a deep South that practiced an apartheid system not significantly different from South Africa's. It was his intolerance for racism that gave him the will to be thrown in jail.

Passive resistance, as he practiced it, has nothing to do with being passive. If King had been passive, we would never have known his name. He practiced his own kind of revolution, and his enemies were not simply the Bull Connors and George Wallaces of the world, but the establishment, too. Check the FBI files.

It was only after his death that mainstream America came to adopt King.

In his life, as the whole world watched, King literally took the blows simply for being black. And everyone who saw him risking his body had to know who was right and who was wrong, thereby enabling King to appeal to people's consciences or, at least, their sense of shame. And because he had the guts to stand up, laws got changed.

The enemy is different today. There aren't any blatantly racist laws against which to protest. Blacks can sit on buses; some even sit in boardrooms. Racism is more subtle, and figuring the ways to combat it are more complex.

Even in King's time, though, he was seen by some as not being sufficiently tough. Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown and the Black Panthers said passive resistance was an old man's game.

But King changed, even as Malcolm X had. Eventually King would take his protest marches to the northern urban ghettoes where the "I have a dream" speech didn't have the same meaning and where a lack of Jim Crow laws hadn't translated into racial justice.

In his last years, King's speeches became harder edged. He didn't want to be left in the comfortable middle, but to continue to challenge. He was challenging until he was shot down.

The point is, no one should have to choose between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. They both mattered then, and they both matter now.

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