As far as we know, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X only met once. They were both attending the debate on the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, and they briefly exchanged greetings at the US Capitol. There is a picture of the two men, shaking hands and smiling as if they were old friends who had not seen each other for a long time. History leaves us with a fascinating “what if.” How would the history of the civil rights movement, of the United States, and of the world have been different if these men had a longer meeting? What would have been different if the two had joined forces if such an alliance were even possible? How would the world be different if the two men had lived long lives?
The play The Meeting by Jeff Stetson imagines a meeting between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. in a Harlem hotel room a week before Malcolm’s assassination. According to the play, Malcolm X has invited Martin Luther King to visit him in Harlem, and King has accepted his invitation. The two men talk, not as larger than life national figures, but they talk as two human, all too human beings, in many ways ordinary men who have been drafted by extraordinary times to play an outsized role in the moral evolution of humankind. The question of how to portray this was a challenge to the actors playing Martin and Malcolm. (http://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/black-rep-presents-meeting)
I recently saw the current production of this play by the St Louis Black Repertory Company (http://www.theblackrep.org/) and I was struck by two insights. Full disclosure. My son is a member of the current Black Rep cast. He plays Rashad, Malcolm X’s bodyguard. The three actors in this play seem to all be in their thirties, the same age as were Martin and Malcolm in 1965. My first insight: I was reminded that neither of these men lived to see their 40th birthday. They were young men leading a movement of young people. They were deeply committed to a cause larger than themselves. They were my parent’s age. I was a girl when the civil rights movement was at its apex. Now my son is representing that time on the stage.
I thought about my generation and about the work we did, that we did not do, the work that we are still doing. I thought about this current generation of 30 somethings and their artistic imagination. I thought about the people younger than 30 and what this fragmented world of social networking and smart phones and video games and the surveillance state and the Hip-Hop International Nation, and the Internet means to the project of human rights.
At the end of the day, both Martin and Malcolm were interested in bringing about human dignity. And, here is my second insight. For all of their differences in how to achieve the end result, they both worked toward the same goal of justice for all of humanity through human unity.
Unity is powerful.
It is dangerous to an oppressive status quo.
It is important on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day that we not rush too quickly past the very real differences between these two men. King was committed to nonviolence. He never wavered from this stance. He believed that one was justified in using violence to protect one’s family, but as a political tactic to achieve the ends of justice, peace, and human rights, he was completely opposed to it. He believed in the logic of peacemaking that means and ends ought to cohere. One cannot get to peaceful ends through violent means. His ethics on this was deontological: nonviolence was the right way to bring about change in the world, no matter the consequences. We ought to be relentless in our practice of nonviolence.
In contrast, Malcolm’s position was famously stated in his declaration of radical humanism where he declares the right to be a man, a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given human rights “in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.” The means are secondary to the end goal. His morality allows any means that will take him to a particular end. Here Malcolm echoes French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre when he writes: “I was not the one to invent lies: they were created in a society divided by class and each of us inherited lies when we were born. It is not by refusing to lie that we will abolish lies: it is by eradicating class by any means necessary.” Malcolm was a consequentialist, a pragmatist.
In early 1965, Malcolm and others were working to establish the Organization of African-American Unity. After returning from his overseas trip in 1964, having been influenced by the Organization of African Unity, Malcolm returned to the United States committed to the idea of unity among African peoples across the globe. He thought his work was to bring about such unity among African-Americans. Toward that end, he did invite leaders of the civil rights movement in the South to Harlem to speak. Fannie Lou Hamer was one of his guests. He travelled South and spoke to student in Selma, Alabama while Martin Luther King, Jr. was in jail, and he met with Coretta Scott King. His proposal was that he lead a branch of the movement that would come South to bring retributive justice to anyone who committed violence against African Americans, especially against civil rights workers.
It is this plan that makes an alliance between himself and King unlikely.
Even so, both men grew closer to the idea that unity was a primary requirement for humanity to achieve human rights, justice and peace. Malcolm was willing to take the case of injustice against African Americans to the United Nations. King preached about the network of mutuality that made us all our brother’s and sister’s keeper. At the end of his life, he was working on the Poor People’s Campaign that intended to unify poor people of all races and bring them to Washington DC to demand public policies intended to eradicate poverty in the world’s richest nation. King was killed in Memphis while he was there to support a strike by garbage workers.
Today I participated in a public reading of King’s words at Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis. (http://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/christ-church-cathedral-invites-public-day-long-community-reading-mlk-s-words) I read a passage from his essay “The World House” published in his book Where do we Go From Here: Chaos or Community. It is striking how the issues King wrote about then are still issues now. The bogey man is no longer communism. Today it is terrorism. But, the scare tactics are still the same. King wrote of the moral imperative of a living wage, for an end to global poverty, and for the necessity for peace. He wrote in support of the United Nations. He wrote of the fierce urgency of now, and warned us against procrastination.
Many of the challenges that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X faced are with us today. However, I am convinced that these two committed young men were right to urge us toward a strategy of human unity. Think of the world that could be if we abandoned the petty divisions that allow the powers that be to divide us into warring factions willing to die and to kill over finite resources. At the same time, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and people in war zones die daily and life becomes a horror. How much more effective could the peace movement be if it were not divided by this or that view of how to achieve a common goal?
In “The World House” King wrote: “This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.” King reminds us that God is love. It is this love that will clear the way for unity and for its power. It is this love that will redeem the time and bring about the ends of justice and peace.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.