Roots of bigotry

February 24, 1994|By Karen Olson

THERE ARE many reasons why Marylanders -- and indeed all Americans -- should welcome Baltimore Rep. Kweisi Mfume's efforts to maintain a meaningful dialogue with the Nation of Islam. While Kahlid Muhammad's crude bigotry and Louis Farrakhan's disingenuous response to it deserved repudiation, the important work that the Nation of Islam has conducted in the poorest African-American communities and among the most forlorn among the black prison population should not go unrecognized or unappreciated.

Extremists in all organizations, be it Operation Rescue, the Jewish Defense League or the Nation of Islam, bring opprobrium to their causes and should be sharply condemned. But we make a grievous error if we stop listening to any group whose message has attracted a following. Because of my own history I have particular reasons to urge that Americans, especially white, middle-class Americans, listen to the Nation of Islam more attentively.

Like millions of Americans of my generation, I found reading the "Autobiography of Malcolm X" one of the formative experiences of my young adulthood. It was the first book I had ever encountered that explained in terms I could understand what it meant to be powerless in America, excluded from economic security, occupational opportunity and a sense of personal well-being. It also explained to me how life on the margins could be an inspiration for struggle and truth-seeking rather than hopelessness and despair.

In 1965, the year Malcolm X was assassinated, I was 23 years old and working, along with my husband, both of us white, for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. I was pregnant with a child who, although he was white, would be born in the segregated black "pavilion" of an Atlanta hospital because my obstetrician was an African American. Such, at that time, were the customs of the American South.

Strange as it may seem in this age of feminist consciousness, while I waited through the early stages of labor for contractions that would require my full attention, I read the book "Malcolm X Speaks." Today, that picture of myself as an immensely pregnant white woman reading Malcolm X makes me chuckle, because the image is so contrary to contemporary stereotypes of Malcolm's black nationalist followers. Americans are such poor students of history that we have forgotten that Malcolm X spoke to a very large and diverse audience of people of all ages, black and white, who sought the particular lessons he had to teach.

One of the reasons is that Malcolm X came from a background that was almost completely unprotected from the indignities of racism and poverty. There were no cushions provided by middle-class economic security or family members with social power. Whatever he learned, he learned in environments that I had always considered inhospitable to thoughtfulness and wisdom. Yet here was a man who could see things -- and announce them to the world -- that were invisible even to to the eyes of the most highly educated people. He was the first self-taught free-thinking person I had ever encountered, and he destroyed forever my assumption about the connections between privilege, respectability and knowledge.

In addition, he was the first person I had encountered who was continually learning and evolving, actually before my eyes and often in dramatic, path-breaking ways.

The racism of Malcolm's early career was, of course, wrongheaded and widely condemned by blacks as well as whites. But Malcolm moved quickly beyond the easy scapegoats to which desperate and fearful people so often resort.

What was remarkable to me -- young, impressionable and somewhat desperate myself with the fear that young people have of not finding personal success -- was that he learned so much so quickly, and that within a few years he had moved from the backwardness of racial bigotry to the forefront of a sophisticated critique of social injustice in America.

The lessons Malcolm X was teaching before he was assassinated were remarkably similar to the perspective Martin Luther King was embracing before he, too, was assassinated. Both men had come to believe that an end to racial bigotry and to the legal edifice of segregation that buttressed it were insufficient remedies to achieve social justice in America. Economic inequities, deeply entrenched in the fabric of the society, also had to be addressed.

It's almost 30 years later, and the chickens finally have come home to roost. We are reaping what we have sown, the sons are paying for the sins of the fathers. While the civil rights movement removed the barriers to middle-class life for millions of African Americans, poor black communities today are more economically disadvantaged and far more desperate than they were in the 1960s.

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