Where do American heroes go when they’ve been swept from the board of Life? Where do the men who shaped the history of the United States, its conversation on its place in the world, the ideals on which America was born and the stride it has kept with time and an ever-changing world theater go? Where are these examples placed to extend the value of their contributions to our nation? Some end up on postage stamps; some as streets and avenues. Two men in particular shaped the latter portion of twentieth century America’s self-image. Both men worked tirelessly for the part of America that has often been muted in favor of technological and architectural advancement: its conscience. These two men represented an America of men and women partitioned through fundamentally similar lenses, but from different worlds. As two sides of the same coin, each bore witness and effected change as it changed them; on one side of the coin, fury and indignation; on the other, powerful forbearance.
Michael King, Jr., later rechristened at five years-old as Martin Luther King for his namesake, the upstart Protestant who challenged the legitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church by his minister father, had his path chosen for him. He, like many African Americans growing up in the United States was tested by racism at an early age, but with the help of family and mentoring colleagues the precocious youth was molded over time and coaxed from the affliction of retaliation to an ambitious system with a different philosophy. A national figure by the age of thirty, Dr. King forged a path through the long-standing American tradition of racism within the Civil Rights Movement – a theater of social change that is usually relegated to the fourteen-year period he was active, but truly an extension of the efforts of African Americans since 1865 – and eventually became one of the world’s global rubrics for overcoming the trappings of hatred.
Malcolm Little’s identity and world view would also be compromised by racism, but he would have few positive elements to mediate its virulent effects. His earliest memory was escaping his childhood home as it burned down around him, set aflame by white “supremacist” groups; the subsequent murder of his father, who suffered the last two hours of his life in nearly two separate pieces; the breaking up of his family by an apathetic state system and the crushing, blithe discouragement given him by authority figures despite his latent scholastic potential. These experiences birthed Detroit Red, a cynical, shrewd gambler, hustler, thief, and then later, after seven years of imprisonment and acceptance into the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, the most prominent detractor of the status quo that enabled the American tradition of destruction of African Americans the country had ever seen in his era. The impact of both men, over fifty years after their violent, government-supported deaths still resonates, but one side of the coin is valued in shadow.
These two men were the scions of a one hundred and twenty-three year battle to attain a place at America’s table, where its ideals were unilaterally plated and portioned. These ideals coalesced into laws, and then rights and finally crystallized into an indefatigable paradigm from which the table was built: the American Dream. Their murders were a causality of challenging the American Dream – a financial and social infrastructure created in imitation of Nature (as interpreted by humans) – a binary system of top and bottom defended by the pathological obsession with being, or being considered, white. For centuries, this identity has cast about and created institutions to house its pathology: religion, pseudo-science, government, laws and economics.
Dr. King, within a coalition of equally talented activists challenged the American Dream with a counter-dream, equality. He sought to transform the self-indulgent mirage of white supremacy (both the central hub and militant arm of this school of thought) with passive resistance directed at giving the oppressor the opportunity to see his one-sided aggression actions through nonviolence. The conquering of one’s basic instincts when others give free rein to theirs with no consideration toward the impact of their actions speaks of a character not matched in any era since. To put one’s body on the line to clothe the nakedness of a country’s morality must have seemed a surreal boon to the men, women and children who committed these acts of barbarism in protection of their whiteness; in the bricks, bottles, sticks, hoses, German shepherds and guns they wielded; in the way housewives accused innocent boys and men of indiscretion with a casualness that underscored the almost certain fatal reprisal; in the way the country pressed for this identity and its enduring proof of stature – to do with black life as anyone who believed themselves to be white willed – to remain unblemished by equality.
Malcolm X’s counter-dream was no dream at all, but an awakening exclusive to people of color, with harsh indictments against racism as its alarm clock. He did not, even after his conversion to Sunni Islam countenance a non-violent approach in the face of wanton terrorism against people of color. His supporting ideology was the law of reciprocation, a mutual call and response dialogue in the language the oppressor spoke in. The threat of violence racism imposed made protection of the body paramount to any ideal or hereafter concerns fomented by the institutions designed to check self-actualization and aspirations for human rights. Malcolm’s passionate intolerance interrupted America’s paradigm, stymied and upset the country-wide perception that color determined position, treatment or allocation of dignity. His admonishments to black America to cast off ancestral fear (the violence-ingrained mindset of powerlessness and resignation instilled in generations of men of color through America’s brutal institutions, first through the slave owner/plantation and its ancillary evolutions of government, state and federal laws enforced by our police system, the current body men to this tradition) and self-determine their own paths through social and political unity were obfuscated by the deep-seated fear possessed by a society of people seeking to assuage or supplant ancestral guilt – the outstanding moral debt signed in the blood of generations of African Americans and other people of color on the parchment of their bodies and left, as tradition, in arrears for the proceeding generations of those believing themselves to be white to dismiss or avoid at will – instead of facing it head-on. Malcolm’s drive to unequivocally hold that debt to America’s face earned him a deep, reflexive hatred and then later a grudging respect, not as an incisive humanitarian but as an avenging spirit demonized in the public eye.
Traditionally America, in the form of its institutions and its people under the sway of this pathology has handed down defacto or literal death sentences to any man, woman or child of any ethnicity who dared challenged its essential directive, its Dream; while not open to all men equally, the Dream nonetheless solicits all men to its maintenance. That service is well-compensated in some cases. The punishment for defying its directive is crippling and in many cases, fatal. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ term “essential below” is chillingly apt.
The definitive measure of a man’s legacy is exemplified by the people ignited from that spark of inspiration borne of his conviction. The next great question to arise from their sacrifice and the sacrifices of the men and women who supported them is whether or not forty-four million descendants of former native Africans, wholly American for their unimpeachable contributions to this country’s foundations create for themselves an identity distinct from the burdensome folk taxonomy of race (neither black nor white are legitimate ethnic designations). Parallel to this question are the considerations regarding the ongoing struggles of ancestral guilt: the collapse of naiveté with apathy (any social media comment thread that all but suggests a greater preoccupation with the non-cosmopolitan image of the racist than the actions of one) the selective erasure of color lines (re: All Lives Matter) and the paradoxical clinging to the identity of white while attempting to redact the collective social term from its primary legacy of imperialist homicide. Splitting an atom with one’s bare hands while juggling could be a comparatively easier task.
Both of these great men saw that their futures lay at the feet of the people they fought for and both knew, with a prescience all men ahead of their time possess, and as America has decreed for centuries, that it would require the ultimate sacrifice (to note, Dr. King’s inspiring but ominous “Mountaintop” speech and Malcolm X’s lingering premonitions of one day succumbing to a violent death echoed throughout his entire life). Even as the current wave of attrition for fair treatment has settled (publicly) on the lives of women, children and the lawfully compliant in disturbingly telling waves, the legislatively endorsed murder of out of all proportion to the American population by law enforcement – and the cache of state monies doled out to bereaved families for its most heinous cases – seems almost an implicit exchange for the right to take the lives of people of color at will. These upsets, including the most recent white nationalists riots in Charlottesville are what these two men gave their lives for over fifty years ago to help end. Two sides of the same coin. Malcolm X has a statue erected to mark the very place where he was removed from the board of Life; Dr. King has a monument in a place that demonstrates his national impact, our nation’s capitol. Who determines the side of the coin which sees the light and which rests on the flat side of the palm? If both sides create value for the coin, equal care must be given to both. For both men pushed back against the monolith that is the American Dream inch by incremental inch to provide room for the true reality: that all men are created equal.