Martin and Malcolm The Olive Branch and the Arrows

FRANK HARRIS III

January 18, 1993|By FRANK HARRIS III

West Haven, Connecticut. -- Cub Scout Pack 7, in my hometown of Waukegan, Illinois, was all-black, but even in the 1960s when the civil-rights movement was in full swing, our scout leaders never discussed anything other than scouting. Something my den mother said nearly 30 years ago, however, touches on two of the most renowned black leaders and their role in history.

One is Martin Luther King, whose birthday our nation officially honors today for the eighth time as a national holiday. The other is Malcolm X, whose image and ideas have received the greater exposure in the past year.

I am completely sure that my den mother, a soft-spoken, conservative woman, leaned toward the philosophy of Martin more than that of Malcolm. And I am halfway sure that today she might ask, as so many others have asked: How can you honor, respect and admire two men with diametrically opposed philosophies on how to win freedom and justice for the descendants of Africans in America?

Certainly, the two men were on opposite ends of the civil-rights and human-rights spectrum. Martin believed in peaceably turning the other cheek: ''I am con- vinced,'' he said, that ''the most potent wea- pon available to oppressed people as they struggle for freedom and justice is the weapon of non- violence.'' Mal- colm said: ''We are non- violent with people who are nonviolent with us. But we are not non- violent with anyone who is violent with us.'' Peace at all costs . . . the capacity for violence. A contradict- ion, perhaps, until I remember the words of my den mother. At one of our weekly meetings there was a ban- ner which featured the image of an American Eagle with an olive branch grasped in one taloned foot and 13 arrows in the other. A symbol of peace, a symbol of war.

''The olive branch,'' my den mother explained, ''symbolizes America's desire for peace. The arrows symbolize our willingness to fight to protect that peace.''

As ironic as it is, considering how much America's official government agencies worked in opposition to both Martin and Malcolm, the ideas of the two men remind me of the olive branch and the arrows in the grasp of that American eagle, pictured on every dollar bill on the other side of George Washington.

When someone tells me about the contradiction of honoring, respecting and admiring both Martin and Malcolm, I pull out a dollar bill and point to that eagle with the olive branch and the arrows, and I think of my den mother's words of 30 years ago concerning the desire for peace and the willingness to fight to protect that peace.

It is possible -- even American -- to honor, respect and admire both men.

Frank Harris III is a writer and lecturer.

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