Day 33 of our Lenten Journey through Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.
We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
From James Cone in Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare (1991):
King’s words have been appropriated by the people who rejected him in the 1960s. So by making his birthday a national holiday, everybody claims him, even though they opposed him while he was alive. They have frozen King in 1963 with his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. That is the one that can best be manipulated and misinterpreted. King also said, shortly after the Selma march and the riots in Watts, ‘They have turned my dream into a nightmare.’
Mainstream culture appeals to King’s accent on love, as if it can be separated from justice. For King, justice defines love. It can’t be separated. They are intricately locked together. This is why he talked about agape love and not some sentimental love. For King, love was militant. He saw direct action and civil disobedience in the face of injustice as a political expression of love because it was healing the society. It exposed its wounds and its hurt. This accent on justice for the poor is what mainstream society wants to separate from King’s understanding of love. But for King, justice and love belong together.
There are many ways in which Malcolm’s message is more relevant today. King’s message is almost entirely dependent on white people responding to his appeals for nonviolence, love and integration. He depends on a positive response. Malcolm spoke to black people empowering themselves. He said to black people, ‘You may not be responsible for getting yourself into the situation you are in, but if want to get out you will have to get yourself out. The people who put you in there are not going to get you out.’ King was appealing to whites to help get black people out. But King gradually began to realize that African-Americans could not depend on whites as much as he had thought.
King did not speak to black self-hate and Malcolm did. King was a political revolutionary. He transformed the social and political life of America. You would not have Barack Obama today if it had not been for King. Malcolm was a cultural revolutionary. He did not change the social or political structures, but he changed how black people thought about themselves. He transformed black thinking. He made blacks love themselves at a time when they hated themselves. The movement from being Negro and colored to being black, that’s Malcolm. Black studies in the universities and black caucuses, that’s Malcolm. King never would have done black studies. He taught a course at Morehouse on social and political philosophers and did not include a black person. He didn’t have W. E. B. Du Bois or Frederick Douglass. None of them. He had all the white figures like Plato and Aristotle. Malcolm helped black people to love themselves.