This piece was first published Jan. 18, 2010. It is being reposted on this Martin Luther King Jr. memorial weekend.
Martin Luther King Day has become a yearly ritual to turn a black radical into a red-white-and-blue icon. It has become a day to celebrate ourselves for "overcoming" racism and "fulfilling" King's dream. It is a day filled with old sound bites about little black children and little white children that, given the state of America, would enrage King. Most of our great social reformers, once they are dead, are kidnapped by the power elite and turned into harmless props of American glory. King, after all, was not only a socialist but fiercely opposed to American militarism and acutely aware, especially at the end of his life, that racial justice without economic justice was a farce.
"King's words have been appropriated by the people who rejected him in the 1960s," said Professor James Cone, who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York and who wrote the book "Martin & Malcolm & America." "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," Cone said. "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."
Malcolm X, whose refusal to appeal to the white ruling class makes it impossible to turn him into an establishment icon, converged with King in the last months of his life. But it would be wrong to look at this convergence as a domestication of Malcolm X. Malcolm influenced King as deeply as King influenced Malcolm. These men each grasped at the end of their lives that the face of racism comes in many forms and that the issue was not simply sitting at a lunch counter with whites -- blacks in the North could in theory do this -- but being able to afford the lunch. King and Malcolm were deeply informed by their faith. They adhered to a belief system, one Christian and the other Muslim, which demanded strict moral imperatives and justice. And because neither man sold out or compromised with the power elite, they were killed. Should King and Malcolm have lived, they would have become pariahs.
King, when he began his calls for integration, argued that hard work and perseverance could make the American dream available for rich and poor, white and black. King grew up in the black middle class, was well educated and culturally refined. He admitted that until his early 20s, life had been wrapped up for him like "a Christmas present." He naively thought that integration was the answer. He trusted, ultimately, in the white power structure to recognize the need for justice for all of its citizens. He shared, as most in his college-educated black class did, the same value system and preoccupation with success as the whites with whom he sought to integrate.
But this was not Malcolm's America. Malcolm grew up in urban poverty, dropped out of school in eighth grade, was shuttled between foster homes, abused, hustled on city streets and ended up in prison. There was no evidence in his hard life of a political order that acknowledged his humanity or dignity. The white people he knew did not exhibit a conscience or compassion. And in the ghetto, where survival was a daily battle, nonviolence was not a credible option.
"No, I'm not an American," Malcolm said. "I'm one of 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the ... victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So I'm not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver -- no, not I! I'm speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare!"
King, especially after he confronted the insidious racism in Chicago, came to appreciate Malcolm's insights. He soon began telling Christians that "any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that cripple them, is a spiritually moribund religion in need of new blood."
"King began to see that Malcolm was right in what he was saying about white people," Cone told me. "Malcolm saw that white people did not have a conscience that could be appealed to to bring justice for African-Americans. King realized that near the end of his life. He began to call most whites 'unconscious racists.'"
The crude racist rhetoric of the past is now considered impolite. We pretend there is equality and equal opportunity while ignoring the institutional and economic racism that infects our inner cities and fills our prisons, where a staggering one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are incarcerated. There are more African-American men behind bars than in college. "The cell block has replaced the auction block," the poet Yusef Komunyakaa writes.
The fact that prison and urban ghettos are populated primarily with people of color is not an accident. It is a calculated decision by those who wield economic and political control. For the bottom third of African-Americans, many of whom live in these segregated enclaves of misery and deprivation, little has changed over the past few decades; indeed, life has often gotten worse.
In the last months of his life, King began to appropriate Malcolm's language, reminding listeners that the ghetto was a "system of internal colonialism." "The purpose of the slum," King said in a speech at the Chicago Freedom Festival, "is to confine those who have no power and perpetuate their powerlessness. ... The slum is little more than a domestic colony which leaves its inhabitants dominated politically, exploited economically, segregated and humiliated at every turn." The chief problem is economic, King concluded, and the solution is to restructure the whole society.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were, as King and Malcolm knew, meaningless slogans if there was no possibility of a decent education, a safe neighborhood, a job or a living wage. King and Malcolm were also acutely aware that the permanent war economy was directly linked to the perpetuation of racism and poverty at home and often abroad.