SHATTERED MIRRORS: Spiritual Dichotomies of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. and Malcolm X

 Talking Drum: At Peace...“Revolutionary prophets, like Malcolm and Martin, often do not live to become old men.  They are usually killed by the forces they are seeking to change.  Malcolm X was killed by the blacks he loved and was seeking to liberate from self-hate.  Martin (Luther) King was killed by the whites he loved and was seeking to set free of racism.”  (J. H. Cone, “Martin & Malcolm & America”)

While thinking about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the activities leading up to another MLK Day, I couldn’t help but think about the legacy of Malcolm X, as well.  I thought about the juxtaposition of their controversial philosophies, their separate journeys and the corresponding impact on the world stage, especially in the United States.  I also considered the Gospels and the imprints of another “revolutionary,” Jesus Christ, including the impressions He likely left with them, both.  And, I pondered the earlier beliefs on Ancient Africa’s theatre in the round, before the entrance of Euro-Asian invaders, behind the veiled masks of compassion– within Islam AND Christianity.

Growing up in the South, splitting times between the Southern Baptist and Pentecostal households of my parents and grandparents, I’ve learned that just mentioning Martin and Malcolm in the same breath, was sometimes blasphemous enough—without even mentioning Christ.  In our house, their names became as controversial as the idea of any natural dualities in nature, like dichotomies between the sacred vs. secular– or the sacred versus the profane—relationships I once studied, or examined, within certain introductions to, or quantitative analysis of, various world religions. 

But, I knew that my grandmother, a Pentecostal evangelist, as well as a farmer’s wife, frowned on the idea of Black Power or separation of the races.  On the other hand, I was less certain of my dad’s take, a Southern Baptist activist preacher, since he died when I was just five years old.  Based on what I knew about him, I felt that he and Dr. King would have been comfortable conversing with each other, as he once did with W.E.B. Du Bois.  After all, his last name happens to be the middle name my dad gave me at birth. So, I somewhat felt the connection within my bones.

Yet, Du Bois wasn’t alone within his publicly held views of the “double consciousness” of African-Americans, as he described in his “Strivings of the Negro People” (Atlantic Monthly, 1897) and “The Souls of Black folk” (1903). Du Bois felt that this reality of a duality in the black existence led to psychological tensions which might harm their sense of right and wrong, or good and evil. Frankly, these same tensions have often sapped my own energies within a lifetime of various confrontations on the battlefield against racism.

But, I often wondered what Dr. King and Malcolm X would have ultimately concluded about Du Bois’ “two-ness” theory, having been exposed to Eastern religious thought, themselves.  I reflected on this within the framework of my own life experiences and the college classroom teachings of an astute Anglo-American professor who had spent nearly a decade living and studying in Japan, as a Buddhist Monk. I remember in vivid detail his idea that we all tend to adopt the religion of our parentage.  Yet, he felt there were many advantages in “crossing over” to learn about other religions and cultures of the world, then crossing back with greater appreciation for your own. 

I particularly enjoyed his comparative analysis between Buddhism and Hinduism and his discourse on the “Kundalini awakening” of what he called the, “serpent force” or spiritual energy through arduous meditation.  But, I knew my grandmother would slap me ear-ringing silly for just thinking about something other than what the Bible taught.  On the other hand, I believed my dad would have engaged me in further conversation, to see “where my head was” or what I had learned. At minimum, I knew he would listen.

My more fundamentalist grandmother would be shocked that I often thought of my dad as a “revolutionary,” mostly in the sense that he died early, at 37, like Dr. King and Malcolm X.  Over the years, I recall my older sisters often saying that it wasn’t hypertension that my father died from, “…it was them (expletive- deletive),” referring to folk in the congregation, and their entrenched acceptance of Jim Crowism that he was trying to change.  Not only did he pastor our church in the city, but served as the circuit preacher for three smaller congregations, in the hills of rural Kentucky, as well. 

In the country, he was compensated a little with cash. But, most honorariums came from home-grown food and vegetables and, many times, scrumptious sit-down dinners, following his sermon.  And, I still recall the uproar my mother told me about, when my dad’s income had been voted cut, due to skimpy church coffers in the city.  He was forced to take a part-time janitorial job– in another city– to meet our family’s income shortfall.  But, trustee board members darn near blew a gasket when he obtained finances, for the church, from an outside, white organization.  I remember these things well and often felt they were somewhat instrumental in my later rebellion within the church.  The way I saw it, I was certain that the church could offer nothing but havoc and headaches for me.  After my military service, I learned to appreciate the earlier religious training I received, especially its moral constraints which helped my wife and I to raise our own family.  Yet, sadly, I’ll probably always exercise a modicum of organizational caution, albeit hindering my own spiritual growth and development.

The journeys of Dr. King and Malcolm X began with different orientations and philosophies—for Martin, a Christian ethos, sharpened within the hallowed halls of ivy; and, for Malcolm, a street corner psyche, honed behind the walls of incarceration.  Their divergent experiences and observations, concerning racism and the denial of human rights, began leading them to similar conclusions before their deaths– like the transformational nature of the yin and yang of certain Eastern religions. In the book, “Martin & Malcolm & America:  A Dream or a Nightmare” (James H. Cone, Orbis Publishing, 1993), Malcolm is described as undergoing radical change in the last year of his life, discarding his beliefs about race and religion and, just before his assassination, “…moving toward a universal perspective on humanity that was centered on his commitment to the black liberation struggle in America.” 

A similar observation was made of Dr. King.  While Malcolm criticized Dr. King for his non-violent approach to social change, he recognized they both were fighting for the same goals—with the same potential for a violent death, or violence, sort of like the yin and yang of Democratic-vs.-Republican political shenanigans, we see all around us, today.  When Malcolm died, it was said that Dr. King began to see the American dream differently.  He viewed society’s duality of “…two economies,…two housing markets,…two school systems” as bringing about injustice and began to work toward integration– as justice– rather than seeking fairness within a segregated environment.  Yet, like many of us in the mid 1960s, he knew that “When whites talked about integration they meant tokenism, just as Malcolm had said many years earlier” (Cone).

We can only guess what outcomes may have unfolded if Martin and Malcolm had lived.  But, within the scope of their deaths, I thought how we as a people, a nation within a nation, began to reach out to international concerns, while embracing our unique history in different ways.  No longer were we satisfied with the European version of our yesteryears, in the wake of the Mayflower pilgrims.  We began reaching for our ancient beginnings, beyond the Old Testament of the Bible (mostly between 1500 B.C. and 100 A.D.), stretching back to the roots of African cultures which historians say began in Africa between 120,000 and 200,000 years ago. 

Of course, my grandmother would have none of this thinking.  And, she probably wouldn’t think of Dr. King and Malcolm X as revolutionary prophets, either.  But, I felt they were just as cutting-edge as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Gana Zumba, Frederick Douglass and Toussaint Louverture or, arguably, Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, Sitting Bull, Cochise, Geronimo and Pancho Villa. 

But, I agree with Dr. King’s take that “When the underprivileged demand freedom, the privileged first react with bitterness and resistance,” even with non-violent appeals.  Dr. King knew that non-violence strategy wouldn’t change the oppressor or status quo right away.  It was to change the heart and soul of the oppressed and, ultimately, prick the conscience of the oppressor.  In the process, the law of the land would change. 

As for me, what’s radical or revolutionary is in the eye of the beholder. If our nation wants to have a serious conversation on the obviously difficult issue of race, perhaps it should first try understanding the reasons why the conversation will definitely not be easy. The geopolitical sum of the seething rage behind our individual and cultural experiences, on the continuum of time, uniquely shapes our personalities, perceptions and consciousness.  The lessons of the ages suggest we should begin our conversations with the fibrous threads we have in common, rather than the broad patchwork of differences between us; and, not be so bent on forcing our way of life on others.  Listening– not always reacting– helps.  Shucks, that’s when meaningful dialogue just begins!

At least, that’s my take, as we approach another Martin Luther King Day celebration– and, the dizzying silliness of another presidential election year. And, if my grandmother was still alive, she’d likely be a little miffed at my opinions.  But, what about yours?  Please feel free to share them with us within the ‘comments’ section, below.  Thanks!  “Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s.

(From Backstreet Djeli original posting @ on 01/21/2011)

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About William "Duke" Smither (formerly, pen name: "Backstreet Djeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at and contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy.