Martin and Malcolm: emblematic perspectives in the struggle for rights

Press "Play" to listen to article
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
Spread the love

By Nana S. Achampong

Martin Luther King Jr. Day [observed every third Monday of January] never ceases to bring to the fore some of the fundamental dilemmas that confront any struggle for rights, whether individual or collective. The pacifist King’s somewhat waning leadership role with the civil rights (plea) movement of the 60s occurred during a period when the general mood among African Americans seemed to have shifted toward a struggle of a more militant nature as was embodied in the sound bites of the charismatic Malcolm X.

It is obvious that both saints basically engaged the system with a view to achieving the same objective: to emancipate in essence the African in America (the Negro). It was however their starkly opposite preferred modus operandi that seemed to grab attention. King seemed to favor an approach that was gradual in pace toward the attainment of the eventual goal; X’s was urgent and immediate, almost existential. King wanted a solution based on inclusion; X was a separatist, viewing King’s position in terms of cell biology (inclusion referring to a ‘nonliving mass in the cytoplasm or nucleus of a cell’). King’s context was about individual rights for the Negro as provided in American constitutional canon; X simply believed in Black Nationalism. King wielded the weapon of peace to achieve love through activism; X toted an AK to claim the love of/for his people through militancy. King believed in the power of the promises of his Christian faith in the manner of a Moses who would lead his people to overcome someday; X was about taking what is his, IN THE MOMENT, by any means necessary.

These seemingly conflicting points of view and methods of the most prominent vanguards of the American civil rights movement are illustrative in all struggles. In the anti-colonial fight to regain Sub-Saharan Africa for instance, Kwame Nkrumah demanded independence IMMEDIATELY while his equally patriotic counterparts pleaded for a “pragmatic” path to self-government. Half a century earlier, while Marcus Garvey was rallying families to come aboard the home-bound Black Star Line, W. E. Du Bois who headed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was appealing for the acceptance of the Negro into mainstream American society.

It is necessary though for us to fight the temptation to criticize from this vantage point; instead, we must empathize with the choices our leaders make. It is essential that we understand that the unripe fruits of their labor, the incomplete results of their tactics, are in no way a reflection of the depth of their personal commitment to the cause. We should understand also that the favored techniques they choose are more likely to be a product of their social background and/or their peculiar individual aspirations.

Knowing that physiognomy cannot help us understand motivations, I maintain that the temperaments and styles of leadership, especially in rights struggles, are influenced to a high degree by social background: religion, class, education, and even residential geography. In the case of King and X, we need to consider their choices in the context of North v. South, Islam v. Christianity, urban v. rural, for-profit v. for-cause, and so on.

They may have seen the world differently, thus the different ways they chose to solve the same problem. Essentially. they both offer solutions of different efficacies that have their unique place in the fight. Once we understand that their intentions are noble, we are able to put their strategies and tactics in perspective and thus maintain focus on the common goal – the prize of real freedom.

My dear friend activist Vera Hope Walston was with King a week before he was assassinated. In the following passage shared on Facebook on the occasion of the slain leader’s birthday, she sums up succinctly how different is not necessarily wrong.

The week BEFORE Dr. King was assassinated he was meeting in Washington, D.C. with Black community leaders, activists, and Black Nationalists. I was among those in the Black Nationalist contingent with the leader Kwame Toure fka Stokely Carmicheal, a mixed bag of students, NOI, SNCC, and New School of African American Thought members. We thought Dr. King’s idea of a Poor Peoples March was ill-advised since it would put innocent people in the line of fire and we told him so with great disrespect, belligerence, and frustration. I remember feeling that he was a “has-been” who didn’t know “what time it was”.

Finally, frustrated with us himself, he said, “…I must be consistent!” I wish I could tell the rest of what he said but all I heard was ‘I MUST BE CONSISTENT”. With that, the entire meeting erupted in screams and shouts directed at him. I remember leaving with my comrades, muttering all manner of epithets and shaking our heads in disgust. We dismissed him as a sell-out, not relevant, and one who was standing in the way of what we saw as the imminent revolution.

I have relived that evening over and over these last 44 years. Today, armed with the wisdom of my senior years I now understand what he was attempting to explain. He could not change and pick up the gun so late in his career and still remain credible. That was for someone else to do.

It’s funny, but when you are actually witnessing history, you don’t know it then. Little did any of us know, that this was Dr. King’s last week on earth and that after his death DC would burn and martial law would be invoked with the National Guard, and US Army armored vehicles (tanks) lumbering down many streets and even in front of my house. Telephone service would be disrupted for many days, Post Office, Bureau of Engraving, and Government Printing Office employees and others would be locked in and not able to leave their jobs. There would be no bus service, and 4 p.m. curfew.

I wish we could have been able to talk to Dr. King with love and respect and agreed to disagree without being disrespectful and I wish we had not treated him with the contempt we did. This I shall always regret and never forget.

Both King and X were assassinated by a system that negates truth and fairness. Both of them martyred themselves for a dream larger than their realities. Both of them perished before their dreams would be realized. They both wanted to see a time when the Negro would be emancipated for real: overcoming by any means necessary, whether via force of arms, or civil disobedience. A generation later, isn’t it interesting to note which tactic seems to have left a legacy that continues to stand today?

First published 17th January 2012 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *