During his lifetime, King would not appear on any public platform beside Malcolm X because of Malcolm’s virulent racism. King was not alone in ostracizing the Nation of Islam leader. NAACP head Roy Wilkins and Urban League President Whitney Young also refused to be associated with the Nation of Islam demagogue. The purpose of this ostracism was to draw a clear moral line between what the civil rights movement stood for and what it was against. If blacks like Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X were racists, the civil rights movement was as opposed to them as it was to racists who were white. It was a matter of principle. As simple as that.
In those days no civil rights leader made excuses for the bad behavior of blacks. No civil rights leader invoked “400 years of slavery” to exculpate criminals, or claimed that blacks themselves couldn’t be racist, or that juvenile delinquents were victims, too. In those days civil rights leaders set down a single standard for all — regardless of race, color or creed.
Their stand had an effect. Malcolm X himself became a convert. When Malcolm renounced racism in the last year of his life, King agreed to be photographed with him. But this picture has now become an icon, as though their conflict never took place. It has erased the distinction that King made. In the years since King’s death, Malcolm X has been raised to canonic status as a patron saint of the civil rights movement, and his portrait now looms larger than life on the wall beside Elijah Muhammad in the memorial at the Lorraine Motel.
This blurring of distinctions between Martin Luther King and Malcolm is a template of the moral confusion that has overtaken the civil rights movement under the leadership of epigones like Jesse Jackson and Sharpton. Perhaps the most depressing aspect of all this dereliction is the absence of prominent voices within the African-American community (a handful of conservatives excepted) dissenting from this tragic betrayal. Not since the death of Rep. Barbara Jordan has there been an African-American figure on the left who has had the courage to call this wayward movement to account in the terms it deserves. In a memorable but un-honored keynote at the Democratic Convention of 1984 she declared:
“We are one we Americans, we are one. And we reject any intruder who seeks to divide us on the basis on race and color. We must not allow ideas like political correctness to divide us and cause us to reverse hard won achievements in human rights and civil rights. We reject both white racism and black racism. Our strength in this country is rooted in our diversity — our history bears witness to that fact. E pluribus unum, from many one. It was a good idea when the country was founded, and it’s a good idea today!”
Here is the heroic voice of black America that we are missing today. It is the only voice that Americans who are not African-American and who are not politically left will respond to. It is the only voice capable of leading Americans into a pluralistic and integrated future.
– MLK is No Doubt Spinning in His Grave, Jewish World Review, November 1999
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