Fifty Years Ago

Last night, several friends and I went to see “The Butler.”  The Movie is powerful and painful in its unapologetic portrayal of the racism and, in turn, the discrimination [and all the ugliness that such discrimination entails] that exist(ed) in our country.  The movie, as you may know, focusses mostly on that period of time when the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum and successfully overturned the Jim Crow laws of the South and made integration of the the school systems the law of the land.  Watching what the young people had to endure, those who chose to be at the forefront of the non-violent battle Martin Luther King led, was unbearable.  The amount of courage it required to “break” the “law” and accept whatever consequences this might bring about was deeply moving.

It has been fifty years since Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave his “I Have A Dream” speech.  Although I was only a kid, the significance of the moment and the speech was not lost on me.  I came from a liberal family and my parents took great care to instill in us that all “men” were created equal and that the racism, the apartheid that existed in the U.S. at the time was not to be tolerated.  We even had our own little run in with the nastiness of racism.  We had just recently returned from having lived in the Congo.  My parents had invited a Black colleague over for dinner.  The next morning, we found paint sprayed on our walkway “Behren Go Back to the Congo” (the misspelling of our last name made my parents certain that the sign had been spray painted by our neighbor, but we had no way of proving his culpability.  Another indication that our neighbor was the guilty party was that when we applied to become members of the club around the corner from where we lived, we were denied entry.  Our neighbor sat on the board.)  Certainly these small incidents do not even touch the hatred and discrimination that Blacks confronted at the time, but it did bring home to me just how volatile the question of race was in our country.

It is no secret that Malcolm X felt that Martin Luther King was an “Uncle Tom.”  Malcolm X, another brilliant orator in the cause of freedom of the Black wo/man in our society was considered more radical than Martin Luther King because he preached total separation from the White man.

When I was thirteen, I became very drawn to Malcolm X.  I believe this was right after he had been assassinated and the whites and the media had been portraying him as dangerous because he preached anger and separation.  I wanted to find out why this person was causing such a reaction in [sic:”my”] community.  My research showed that not only did Malcolm X speak “truth,” but also made sense.  Charismatic rather than dangerous would be how I would have described him and do so to this day.  But his stance was more militant than Martin Luther King’s stance.  Malcolm X was not shy in preaching “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life” rhetoric, which is why the white community, ever guilty of its treatment of the Blacks but, oh so not being able to let go of the power it gave them, shuddered in their shoes.**

When an interviewer asked Martin Luther King what he thought of Malcolm X’s accusation of the former’s approach toward the white man, the Reverend King gave a beautiful answer:

In the end, I think our country needed both leaders and both approaches in order to shift the paradigm because, as Malcolm X pointed out in a marvelous speech he gave on the difference between a house slave and a field slave [see below], when things are more comfortable, the human tendency is to sit back and allow things to remain the way they are, even if it undermines the individual adversely affected.

Although in this speech Malcolm X was specifically referring to the Blacks and their relationship with the Whites, I can easily translate this analogy in more general terms to where our country is today in its response to the way big corporations and Wall Street continue to gut our economic base.  I.e., “We still have food on the table, a roof over our head, a means of getting around, sure “they” have more, but that’s the way things are.”  This not to diminish the fact that the racist undertones that plague our country continue to raise their ugly heads.

Maybe this disparity continues to exist because, in spite of the uplifting belief that we had broken the race glass ceiling, so beautifully summarized in a communication individuals were texting, “Rosa sat, so Martin could walk, so Obama could run” the night Barak Obama won the presidency of the United States, that race glass ceiling continues to cover our nation.  Until we truly reflect and try to incorporate the following fact stated by the Reverend Martin Luther King during his “I have a Dream” speech:

“…. many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone [author’s emphasis].”       Martin Luther King, “I have a Dream” Speech, August 28th, 1963.

Until we are willing to display the courage that the African American youth did during the Civil Rights movement, until we truly say, “enough!” and mean it with our actions, until we come together in a United state, we will continue to live in a world of discrimination and inequality, whether based on race or wealth.


© Yvonne Behrens, M.Ed  2013

** We really do not know how Malcolm X’s position would have evolved over time since he was gunned down before he was able to come into full expression.  We do know that he went on Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca and one of the requirements for Muslims) and that the experience profoundly affected his outlook.