“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. 'We hold these truths to be self‑evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day. . . . sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. . . . we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. . . .” MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. August 28, 1963
“No, I'm not an American. I'm one of the 22 million black people who are victims of Americanism, one of the . . . victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I'm not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or flag‑saluter, or a flag‑waver…. I'm speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream. I see an American nightmare!” MALCOLM X April 3, 1964
These quotations represent sharply contrasting views of America by the two most influential black leaders during the 1960s. Martin Luther King, Jr., the unquestioned leader of the civil rights movement, was an integrationist and a Christian minister who saw America as "essentially a dream . . . as yet unfulfilled," "a dream of a land where [people] of all races, nationalities, and creeds can live together as brothers (and sisters)."
Malcolm X, the unquestioned spokesperson for the disinherited black masses of the Northern ghettos, was a separatist and a Muslim minister who viewed America as a realized nightmare in which black people experience “political oppression," "economic exploitation," and "social degradation" at the hands of white people.
We must not romanticize Martin and Malcolm. As all humans, they had their strengths and weaknesses. Our task is to evaluate them critically, by seeing them always in relation to each other. They are each other’s necessary, corrective, for each spoke a truth about America that cannot be rightly comprehended without the other. Martin and Malcolm teach us important things about the black struggle for freedom, which are also important lessons for other communities as well.
First, Malcolm X taught us that there can be no achievement of black freedom independent of our affirmation of blackness: black self, black action, black culture, and black past. Although this point was never absent in Martin King, it did not receive its proper emphasis until he saw the depth of black self‑hate, especially as revealed in the riots of the Northern ghettos and the subsequent rise of black power. Knowledge of and respect for one's history and culture leads to unity among the people. This is a point that Martin and Malcolm taught in their speeches and demonstrated with their lives.
Malcolm realized before Martin that, black unity must come before any talk about integration with whites. When Martin saw that for most whites, integration meant “tokenism”‑-that is, blacks without power joining whites with power‑-he began to speak strongly in support of the values of black power. Both Malcolm and Martin came to realize that there can be no freedom for blacks prior to our solidarity with each other.
Second, Martin and Malcolm teach us that the achievement of black unity must lead us to reach out to people of other cultures. Martin extended what he had said about the integration of blacks and whites in America to the relations between nations, especially regarding the United States and Vietnam. That was why he could not separate the issues of freedom of blacks in the United States from peace in Vietnam. With Malcolm it is revealing that after his break with the Nation of Islam, he spent more than half of his remaining 11 months in the Middle East, Africa and Europe, searching for religious and political directions in his attempt to develop a program of black liberation. From his international experiences, he received a new vision of freedom that included the human rights of all.
As important as black nationalism is in our struggle, it cannot be the ultimate goal. The beloved community must remain the goal for which we are striving. On this point, Martin was right and Malcolm was wrong. If European history and culture teach us anything, it is the danger of perceiving the world only from the viewpoint of one culture, as if other peoples’ histories do not count.
If blacks or any other people define their freedom struggle in terms of the superiority of their culture over others, they will experience a similar fate as whites. A healthy respect for one’s culture does not mean disdain for others. On the contrary, genuine respect for ones culture necessarily leads to a similar respect and love for other cultures.
Martin King was right: We are bound to each other-‑not just blacks with blacks or whites with whites or Mexicans with Mexicans, but all races of people are one human family, made in the image of God for freedom.
Third, Martin and Malcolm teach us the importance of courageous, intelligent, and dedicated leadership. The black community in particular and poor people generally, are in dire need of such leaders. Too many of their leaders merely talk about freedom for all while gathering the benefits of freedom only for themselves and other middle‑class people of their group.
It is well‑known that neither Martin nor Malcolm benefited financially from the movements they led, and each paid the ultimate price‑-death. But they were more than just courageous and dedicated leaders; they were also intellectuals, fiercely committed to the continued development of their minds through a disciplined program of study.
Martin King began the development of his mind through formal education, acquiring a Ph.D. in theology by the age of 26. He continued his education during his movement days by attracting the best minds around him, holding many retreats with his staff, debating the issues of nonviolence, civil disobedience, black power, and Vietnam. Malcolm began his intellectual development with a program of reading that he began in prison and continued until his death. Both Martin and Malcolm realized that, no people can achieve freedom as long as their leaders are ignorant about how the economic and political systems of the world came into being and how they function today.
One of the chief functions of the leader is to teach the people how to organize themselves for the purpose of achieving their freedom. Organizing for freedom requires thinking about the meaning of freedom and developing a method to implement freedom in the society. Instruction of the young is very important, because they are the bearers of the future.
One of the most serious weaknesses of Martin and Malcolm was their tendency to be too charismatic in their leadership styles, thereby encouraging their followers to bestow on them a messianic image. People began to think that Martin or Malcolm alone would save them, rather than seeing the need for their own involvement in the struggle. Good leaders work themselves out of a job by teaching others to do the work of liberation that was initially begun by professionals. Unfortunately, Martin and Malcolm were not very effective in training others to carry on their work.
The most important contribution of Martin and Malcolm, was their example of fidelity to the truth and their refusal to give up in despair in the face of difficult and stressful situations. When Malcolm was forced to break with Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam, he did not lose hope. Instead, he searched deeply for a religious identity beyond Elijah’s narrow sectarian views and for a political identity grounded in Africa.
Malcolm refused to turn his back on his people even when they rejected him as he attempted to develop his new vision of freedom and an organization to implement it. Ironically, he was killed by the blacks he loved because he refused to remain boxed into a narrow nationalism determined exclusively by color.
By James Cone H.
A distinguished professor at Union Theological Seminary, and teaches courses on 20th century Christianity and liberation theology.
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