I have taught AP English Language and Composition for three years now. I always run a comparison between Malcolm X’s “Ballot and the Bullet” and MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” They are both remarkable pieces and highlight the assimilationist v. separatist approaches to America’s cultural and racial problems.
Malcolm X’s piece is a treat to read. It is full of invective (those damn “crackers!”) and defiance. The anger is palpable. Rhetorically he pulls no punches. The black man has gotten a raw deal for too long. The whites have given him window dressing rights. Fuck the police. The relationship is irreconcilable—probably. The choice (bullets or the ballot?) haunts the speech. There is much that resonates with the current atmosphere especially in light of events in Dallas.
MLK is calm, cerebral, but no less cutting in comparison. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is the apotheosis of assimilationist thought. Throughout the piece he drives home his point to his white, clergy audience: all men are created in God’s image. “And now,” he implicitly says, “let me show you how your greatest thinkers agree with me. I, not you, am upholding the Western Tradition of rights and the dignity of man as created by God.” It’s a tour de force of a black man embracing the foundations of Western culture and harnessing the power of that tradition to confront his audience in firm but pastorly fashion. And so he quotes the canon: the Apostle Paul (not white), Jesus Christ (not white), Socrates, the prophet Amos (note white), T. S. Eliot, Aquinas, Martin Buber, Martin Luther (of course!), Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence. It is a grab bag of authorities revolving around the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage and America’s founding. In doing so, he confronts white men with their own standards. Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Dubois, and Booker T. Washington make no appearances. He fights his apprehensive allies on their own terms by declaring the brotherhood of all men in light of a shared culture that he believes transcends the color line. Further, his pursuit is not superficial or manipulative: MLK wrote the letter sitting in jail without access to his library or google. It is an impressive assortment composed on the fly and shows how deeply MLK drank at the well of the West.
As he says in his “I Have A Dream Speech”: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” MLK pursues a broader humanism. He pursues the evaluation of human worth in terms of character not color.
This idea of being “color-blind’, of course, has become a source of mockery on the left. Frankly, I agree. The idea that we can completely strip a man of his color, culture, or class, and address him in abstract terms belies the human experience. Nevertheless, despite those abiding differences, MLK holds out hope that there are eternal principles that we can all discuss and unite around in our pursuit of truth and justice. In fact, those differences often help us achieve a fuller perspective and insight into truth through conversation.
But that is not the tenor of the conversation today driven by Black Lives Matter. MLK did his part for civil rights but he was wrong about the brotherhood of man. Institutional racism is the new reality and we are all of us now prisoners of our class, gender, and race. A disturbing revelation emerges: MLK’s saccharine sweet, naive belief in racial reconciliation is no more and we have come to terms with a clearer and darker idea of race where total capitulation and thus total war is the only route to salvation. There will be blood.
But how much blood? I find it doubtful that riots will break out 1960s-1970s style across America’s major urban areas (although I admit to being nervous walking home the other night in Harlem after the shooting in Dallas). Keeping those more violent decades in mind is an antidote to shrill hysteria. It’s going to be fine, folks. I suspect not much will change, either. Even as social media turns every local tragedy into a national catastrophe for which something must be done, the bureaucratic bloat in DC and the federalist structure of our constitution in an age of increasingly fierce anti-establishment, and anti-federal government sentiment will only further hinder those who wish to centralize power and make government more dynamic.
Even as young, white professionals gentrify Harlem, the street names remain. Malcolm X Boulevard (6th/Lenox Ave) crosses Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (125th street). The crossing is appropriate. There is a grand tension between the assimilationists who embrace America’s past as flawed but ultimately a roadmap to a bright future and those who want to burn it all to the ground and/or separate themselves from whitey. If Malcolm X and MLK stood on the corner that bears their names, a debate for the ages would ensue. As it is, only their names remain to mark the heart of Harlem—a testimony to an unresolved, philosophical conflict that will not go away.
I still hold out for MLK’s vision. I suspect his line of argument no longer resonates; Malcolm X is trending. Then again, after last night, who knows where we will go. The future is open.