Malcolm, Martin, and the American racial impasse

Dream or nightmare?

by Ken Sehested

I’ve consciously adapted the title of one of my intellectual and spiritual mentors, Dr. James Cone (of blessed memory) for this reflection, in light of the 21 February anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965; and in reaction to the recent announcement by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that it will reopen the case against those convicted of that murder.

Already in 2020 the New York City district attorney announced that it had launched an investigation into the murder, for which three members of the Nation of Islam had been convicted. Malcolm X (Malik Shabazz) had broken with the organization’s policy of Black separatism, though not from his convictions regarding systemic racism.

In recent days a former New York policeman’s deathbed written confession—claiming that the police and the FBI collaborated in arranging Shabazz’s murder—is raising the investigative stakes. (For more on this see Julia Jacobo, ABC News.)

Right: Painting by Derek Russell.

Why is this noteworthy? Well, for starters, the truth is always worth the trouble. More importantly, though, we need to assess the culpability of law enforcement. It has already been established beyond all reasonable doubt that the FBI (and the US Army intelligence service) engaged in illegal monitoring of Dr. King and  other civil rights leaders. William Sullivan, head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division, wrote in a report after the 1963 March on Washington that King was “ ‘the most dangerous Negro in the country.”

If King—consistently and emphatically committed to nonviolence—was considered a threat, one can only imagine their assessment of Malcolm X.

Writing in his 1991 book, “Malcolm, Martin, and America: A Dream or a Nightmare?” Cone said:

“Martin and Malcolm are important because they symbolize two necessary ingredients in the African-American struggle for justice in the United States. We should never pit them against each other. Anyone, therefore, who claims to be for one and not the other does not understand their significance for the black community, for America, or for the world. We need both of them and we need them together [italics in original]. Malcolm keeps Martin from being turned into a harmless American hero. Martin keeps Malcolm from being an ostracized black man.”

It’s important to recognize that both men experienced a widening and deepening of their respective visions during their lifetime—amazing short lifetimes, since both were killed at age 39. Following his 1964 hajj to Mecca, Saudi Arabia—fulfilling the ritual mandate for all Muslims, where he experienced a transforming global, multiracial immersion—Malcolm controversially broke with Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam and its message of Black separatism.

After the civil rights movement’s initial goals of integrated buses, water fountains, and lunch counters, King began to see the complex web of racial, social, and economic factors that must be confronted before meaningful change could occur.

He spoke of the triple threats of racism, materialism, and militarism; and he provoked much contention, a year before his assassination, when he very publicly and forthrightly condemned the war in Vietnam, linking domestic oppression with international aggression. And paid a huge price. The last public opinion poll assessing his popularly found that only a third of the country supported his activism. The “dream” which four years earlier captivated the imagination of many lost its luster; and King’s memory, domesticated.

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This past week I pulled up a reflection (“On Reading Malcolm X’s Autobiography: Marking the 50th anniversary of its publication”) written six years ago to commemorate the golden anniversary of that book. I was grateful that that essay has held up reasonably well, given recent history, particularly with the mobilizing work of Black Lives Matter and the renewed controversy over US history in light of repeated incidents of the killings of unarmed Black folk.

Our nation is grappling with the question of whether race is incidental to our history. Or is it baked in? Just how deep is this archeological dig into racism’s roots, this de-romanticizing of US history? And what are we going to do with the mounting pile of embarrassing artifacts?

Going forward, there are many things to be learned, particularly by those of us in the “white” community. (As has been said, “nobody was white until we got to America.”) Two things are certain for those willing to make the long journey toward the Beloved Community.

First, we must center the voices of those who have felt the lash, endured the chains, all who have been pushed to the margins. The consistent testimony of Scripture is that God’s attention and ire are aroused by the blood of Abel, “crying to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10); by the enslaved Hebrews toiling Pharaoh’s brick yards (Exodus 2:23); when the landless poor are not given rights to the harvest (Leviticus 23:22); when the moans of the destitute reach the ears of Heaven (Psalm 146:7).

Furthermore, the Most High announces that provision for the poor is a form of holiness (Proverbs 14:31) and “knowledge of God” is confirmed in heeding the pleas of the destitute (Jeremiah 22:16); when the very presence of Jesus is acknowledged in the presence of the imperiled (Matthew 25: 31-46); when Jesus’ own Christology (in response to John the Baptist’s disciples asked him “are you the one?”) ignored metaphysical abstraction and instead offered this messianic confirmation: “Go tell John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:2-6).

Indeed, the cries of Creation itself, groaning as a women in labor (Romans 8:8:19), is commended as the proper posture for people of faith, signifying the Spirit’s rebellion against the rule of enmity in the world now known.

Second, coming to terms with racism will be unpleasant and will not happen quickly. Having scales pulled off our eyes will sting and disorient. But the pain is not for humiliation but the proffer of healing and right-relatedness. It is in our own interests to make this journey, ever drawn by the beatific vision of Creation’s promise, purpose, and provision.

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Lent’s traditional emphases are prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. Its siren call is to turn—to turn back from wanton, gluttonous, and calloused ways to the journey toward shared dignity, to justice and righteousness, to relinquishing privilege, looted assets, and addictive habits.

This turning necessarily involves a kind of purging; and the Spirit’s voice resounds as shrill and demanding—not unlike the voice of Malcolm X, among the most prophetic voices in our nation’s history. His breath of fire is not for our incineration but for our refinement. We submit to it not because we long for punishment but because we have been captivated by a dream as big as God.

Speaking personally, there was a period of years, moons ago, when I experienced a crippling sense of personal shame and social despair when realizing my own complicity in systemic racism. The shame wasn’t because I had enslaved anyone; or had committed blatant acts of discrimination.

It was because I realized how clueless I was. And if I was this clueless in this regard, chances were I was equally clueless about a whole range of other forms of unconscious bias.

Simultaneously I feared that the same applied to larger society, that we as a people were also structurally complicit, trapped in a naiveté that prevented us seeing the truth about our wounded history that continues to color current behavior.

I recalled the word of Msimangu in Alan Paton’s novel “Cry, the Beloved Country,” set in apartheid-era South Africa. “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day,” Msimangu said, “when they [white people] are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.” And I wondered, heartbroken and despondently, with the Apostle Paul’s feverish, fated plea, “Who can deliver me from this body of death?”—only without the subsequent affirmation.

There came a time, though, when quotes from three of my heroes bore me up from the sloughs of shame and despair. Not to make me innocent, but to allow me to be responsible, able-to-respond, freed from humiliation’s disabling power to move forward with courage and perseverance for the work of repair. (This process did not occur all at once, mind you, but over a period of years—it took time to soak in, and still threatens from time to time.)

These are those quotes.

The first is from James Baldwin, writing in “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.”

“There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously.  You must accept them and accept them with love. For those innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”

Second, two statements from Maya Angelou.

“Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it,” and “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Finally, one from Malcolm X himself.

“Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”

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Each of these are grace notes, hopeful disclosures, stemming from the pivotal word embraced by people of faith: Repentance is not for punishment but for the power of beginning again. Not with a clean slate—we will ever bear our scars. But the goodness of the Good News is that we can begin again, we can orient ourselves and our society toward the holiness which radiates neighborliness, restoring right relations and just kinship and social policies, knitting together the warp of Heaven with the woof of Earth.

Only by such grace-impelled, hope-provoked work—and it is laborious, sometimes sweaty, difficult, persevering, frustrating work—can we be saved.

Thanks be to God.

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