Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X meet before the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Credit: Creative Commons/Library of Congress.
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.