Dr. King and Malcolm X: Dream or Nightmare

On Monday of last week, millions of men, women and children celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in church ceremonies, plays, marches and speeches throughout this country and all over the world. All of these celebrations were primarily based on the dream that Dr. King expounded during his 1963 speech in front of the Lincoln Monument. Here in San Antonio, the city has even adopted a “Dream Week” that runs from January 11 to the day after the King March. It can easily be surmised that the Dream has taken the front and center position in the entire Civil Rights Movement of the twenty-first century.

malcomxHowever nine months after the famous King speech, Malcolm X challenged the premise of the Dream in a speech delivered at the University of Ghana. He exclaimed, “So if someone else from America comes to you to speak, they’re probably speaking as Americans and they speak as people who see America through the eyes of an American. And usually those types of persons refer to America as the American Dream. But for twenty-million of us of African descent, it is not an American dream, it is an American nightmare.”

From a historical perspective we had two Black leaders viewing the plight of their people from different lenses. These two points of view still exist today and speak to the division within the race. No doubt for many Black Americans, King’s dream has become a reality and they function well within an integrated, capitalist system. But for far too many of the very people that King set out to help prosper, they still remained trapped right in the middle of Malcolm’s nightmare.

You need only go to any large city in this country and the pattern of economic deprivation is the same. There are no jobs for the youth and only minimal jobs for an unacceptable percentage of adults. While the national unemployment rate had fallen in 2015 to a low 5%, the rate for Blacks still hovers above 10%. And the figures for young Blacks between the ages of 16 and 19 are astounding. Over the years it has been 393% of the national average. In 2013, the figure was 36% while the national average was 7.3%. When measuring these statistics against the dream or the nightmare no doubt the latter prevails.

An even more devastating statistic is the number of young Blacks who are the victims of violence. In the years 2008 and 2009, 5,740 children and teens died from gunfire. Of that number 3,892 were homicide victims and 2,320 were Blacks. Again, measuring these statistics against the dream or the nightmare the answer as to which one prevails is quite evident.

We are now confronted with the deplorable situation in Flint, Michigan where our children and adults have been drinking, washing and bathing in water that has been contaminated with lead. These children, as well as adults, will suffer the consequences of this evidently deliberate refusal to cure the problem by the elected officials in the state of Michigan, for the rest of their life. If one were to ask the men, women and children in Flint if they view their condition as part of a dream or nightmare, there is no question how they would respond.

martin-luther-king-and-malcolm-xI am not trying to make an empirical argument in support of Malcolm’s nightmare analogy but only to point out that we have a long ways to go before the dream is realized, for not only a few, but everyone. At some point we must stop placing the emphasis on the Dream aspect of Dr. King’s speech but more on the un-cashed check that was the real message he delivered in 1963. When his speech is examined from that perspective it becomes quite compatible with Malcolm’s nightmare and unites the two leaders in their outlook on the condition of Blacks in this country.

As we begin the second half of the second decade of the twenty-first century, those Black Americans who have achieved the dream must pause in their savoring of success and realize that we still have a great deal of work before us. They cannot afford to be content until no Black man, woman or child is left behind. And that simply means that the unemployment rate among Blacks is equivalent to the national average, the killing of our youth by the police and from gang warfare ends, and that Black Americans are given the same opportunities to succeed in a country that claims to offer equality to all.

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Change

The Oxford Dictionary defines change as to make someone or something different. It further defines improve as change for the better. Using these two verbs, allow me to apply change and improve to a brief analysis of the cultural evolution of Black America.

I believe we can identify four specific periods in our history when change occurred specifically within the Black race. The first obviously was from slavery to freedom. The second occurred during the first three decades of the Twentieth Century and especially during the 1920’s. The third period is identifiable with the Civil Rights Movement. We are now witnessing the fourth period of change that began sometime in the 1980’s with the crack epidemic and the introduction of a specific genre of RAP music. Now please keep in mind to improve is change for the better. Conversely is the possibility that change may not be improvement, but could be just the reverse. Therefore, a critique of those four periods of change is only relevant if we can determine if they also improved the condition of Black people in this country.

One would be hard pressed to argue that the change from slavery to freedom was not an improvement in the condition of our ancestors. Yes, they confronted some very insurmountable odds. They understood the tremendous obstacles facing them on a daily basis during the apartheid years. Every major institution in this country lined up against them. The national, state local governments, the courts, the police and even the military set out to keep them in a subservient status. But there was something very special about those beautiful Black folk who united together against their oppressors. They never became negative but instead turned to love, prayer, and an uncanny determination to never give up, never quit, and never succumb to the evil all around them. Their spirit strength and unity became the foundation for our culture. They survived so that we might live.

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The second historical period of change occurred as Blacks, three generations removed from bondage, jettisoned the old slave mentality and rejected the notion that somehow they were inferior and must always remain subservient to a race of people who assumed their superiority. This period of change can best be understood through the works of the Harlem Renaissance artists. Moving into the 1920’s and led by the godfather of the movement, Dr. Alain Locke, these artists made it clear in their works that a new Black consciousness had evolved. The writers, painters, poets and musicians had one common theme; they were proud of their race, believed in self-reliance and demanded their rights as American citizens. Dr. Locke expounded on this theme in his anthology, The New Negro, published in 1925. Dr. Locke recognized the damage done to the perceptions of Blacks right after Reconstruction failed and during the next fifty years. His goal, as he stated in the foreword to the anthology was “to document the New Negro culturally and socially, to register the transformation of the inner and outer life of the Negro in America.” According to Locke, the old Negro had been socially constructed as “Uncle Toms,” “aunties,” “mammies,” or “sambos.” He went on to describe the New Negro as one who operated with the dual purposes of bringing new leadership to modern America and “rehabilitating the race in world esteem from that loss of prestige for which the fate and conditions of slavery have so largely been responsible.” (Aberjhani and Sandra L. West, Harlem Renaissance, Checkmark Books, An Imprint of Facts on File, Inc New York, 2003). These artists also began to take pride in their African heritage and often argued that the “New Negro” was Pan African in outlook and determined to link Blacks in this country with people of color all over the world. This particular period of cultural change had a positive impact on Black Americans. It allowed Black artists and spokespersons to express new perceptions of the race and take pride in who they were and from where they had come. According to Aberjhani and West the New Negro phase of cultural development allowed educators at Black high schools and colleges throughout the United States during the latter half of the Twentieth Century to employ its general philosophy to motivate their students to set and achieve goals beyond what they expected. (Ibid, 234)

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The third phase of change occurred with the advent of the Civil Rights Movement in conjunction with the Black Arts Movement. Activism rather than the arts dominated this period of change. The artists were complimentary to the warriors who took to the streets throughout the south and marched against apartheid. This period represented the greatest coming together of activists, writers and musicians in the history of the struggle. James Baldwin, John Killens, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, Nina Simone, Malcolm X., Kwame Ture, John Lewis, Julian Bond and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are some of the significant contributors to the cultural change in the third phase. It was an improvement within the core of the culture because it was a continuum of accentuating the beauty of our race and love we shared among ourselves as initially expressed during the Harlem Renaissance.

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We are now in the fourth phase of change. It began in the 1980’s and was influenced by crack cocaine and a specific genre of RAP music, “gangsta rap,” and a specific genre of books called “street lit.” Activism became less important and race pride was relegated to a lesser position of importance. This phase has an existential theme. Nihilistic behavior runs rampant within the Black community. There seems to be more concern with the individual than the race. The expression of Black consciousness instilled into the race during the 1920’s and perpetuated throughout the next five decades lost its importance. We no longer refer to ourselves as “Brothahs” and “Sistahs” but instead as “Dawgs,” the “N” word and the “B” word. Gangs dominate our youth in urban areas and money made from the sale of crack cocaine is often glorified. Brothers selling this poison can launch successful careers that take them from the crack house to the White House. Movies like Straight Outta Compton and television dramas like Power and Empire subtly send a message that money is more important than ethics and morals. At this juncture, I will withhold assessing whether this change has improved on the quality of the culture and leave that to the reader.

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Inevitably, there will be a fifth phase of cultural change. It happens in every race and every country. A major question and concern will revolve around what characteristics of the previous cultures will be adopted by future generations. Will the creators of the future phase build on the second and third phases or will they continue to build on the changes made in the past thirty years.

She Failed to Act Like a Negro Should Act

“We venture to say that fully ninety per cent of all the race troubles in the South are the result of the Negro forgetting his place. If the black man will stay where he belongs, act like a Negro should act, work like a Negro should work, talk like a Negro should talk, and study like a Negro should study, there will be very few riots, fights or clashes.” (Leon Litwack, Trouble In Mind, 1999, First Vintage Books Edition, New York, p.179).

The article in Litwack’s book appeared in the Shreveport (Louisiana) Times in 1919 as justification for the white race resorting to violence against the black population, in Shreveport, Louisiana. But it was also applicable throughout the South. It was part of the white man’s rules of racial etiquette. Blacks were expected to follow the rules as defined by white society. When white folks approached, you got off the sidewalk, even if it meant walking in mud. You always bowed your head and never dared to look white folks in the eye, is only one example of the many rules that Blacks were expected to follow out of deference to the “superior race.”

Professor Leon F. Litwack writes, in his historical account of the Jim Crow years, Trouble In Mind, about what happened when a Black man failed to follow the rules of racial etiquette in the South: “Rufus Moncrief made one mistake, when on his way home from work he encountered a group of white men. He did not display the expected humble demeanor and seemed reluctant to pull off his hat to them when they spoke to him. The men beat him badly, and soon other whites joined in the attack, some of them severing Moncrief’s limbs with a saw. They dragged what remained of him to a nearby tree and strung him up as they continued to mutilate his body.” (Litwack, p. 308) According to the white man’s rules of racial etiquette, Rufus failed to act like a Negro should act, and had to pay the ultimate penalty.

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In 1913, in Valdosta Georgia, Mary Turner failed to act like a Negro should act when she set out to seek justice for her husband, who had recently been lynched. For her actions, the eight month pregnant Mary was the victim of a white mob, “determined to teach her a lesson.” After tying her ankles together they hung her from a tree, head downward. Dousing her clothes with gasoline, they burned them from her body. While she was still alive, someone used a knife ordinarily reserved for splitting hogs to cut open the woman’s abdomen. The infant fell prematurely from her womb to the ground and cried briefly, whereupon a member in the mob crushed the baby’s head with the heel of his boot. (Litwack, p. 288)
One hundred years later, on a road in Texas a young, educated and confident Black woman, Sandra Bland, was pulled over by a Texas Highway Patrolman on what can be considered a very weak offense. When Trooper Brian T. Encina asked Sandra to put out her cigarette while he appeared to be writing her a ticket, she told him no. It is at this point that southern history raised its ugly, racist head and smacked Sandra right in the face. Southern history tells us that Sandra failed “to act like a Negro should act.” She had the audacity to tell a white man wearing a uniform, that no law prohibited her from smoking a cigarette in her car. But she broke the hundred-year rule of white racial etiquette, when she failed to adhere to the trooper’s demand. But maybe she didn’t know those rules were still in effect, in the minds of many southern whites.

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Over the years since the Shreveport article, many Blacks have failed to adhere to the white man’s rule of racial etiquette. Emmit Till defied that rule and paid the ultimate price with his life. Medgar Evers defied that rule and was shot in the back. Thousands of Blacks defied that rule during the Civil Rights Movement and were beaten by southern police. Trayvon Martin defied that rule; Michael Brown defied that rule; and dozens of other young Blacks have defied that rule and all are dead. Despite the constant exposure of violent police tactics against Blacks, they continue to happen because some of these white police officers still feel a sense of superiority over all Blacks, and when the white rule of racial etiquette is broken they are compelled to punish the violator.
Ms. Bland evidently believed in the Constitution, and she thought all others shared her confidence that the document could protect her from being harmed when exercising her rights. What she didn’t realize is that the rules of racial etiquette will trump that Constitution every time. Whenever in direct conflict with the white man’s rules of racial etiquette, it is easily dismissed. The one constant throughout this country’s history has been that rule, and white policemen are demonstrating to us, as Blacks, their loyalty to it over loyalty to the Constitution.