Parson to Person: “Martin’s Dream, Malcolm’s Nightmare,” Jan. 22, 2021

Last Sunday I preached my sermon on “Martin and Malcolm,” comparing the pacifist vision of Dr. King with the more militaristic view of Malcolm X concerning civil rights. I don’t want to repeat what I said then, but I would like to add a little something. When I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (which I recommend if you haven’t read it before), it made me angry, frightened, annoyed, and exhilarated–all at the same time!

The thing is, I much prefer the peaceful prodding of Martin. But I can’t ignore the wrathful rage of Malcolm. In a way, I think you have to go through Malcolm in order to understand Martin. You have to listen to the hard truths Malcolm taught us before you can sing “we’ll walk hand in hand” with any real meaning.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “I don’t see what the big deal is. I treat everybody the same; I don’t care what color they are.” People like that–who think they’re somehow magically free of the prejudices the rest of us have been struggling to overcome for years (and are still struggling to overcome)–ought to read Malcolm X. And before they put the book down and dismiss him as some quaint relic of the 1960’s, they ought to think about some of the things he said. You see, Martin was an American who believed in the American dream (understood as what America could be if it lived up to its promise). Malcolm, on the other hand, said, “I am not an American. I am one of 22 million blacks that are victims of Americanism.”  He also said, “While King was having a dream, the rest of us Negroes are having a nightmare.”

I’m reminded of Malcolm’s description of certain white people he used to see, frequenting black establishments in Harlem. A white who would get drunk in a black bar and then would put his arm around a black patron and, with tears streaming down his face, say to the black man: “I just want you to know, I think you’re just as good as I am.”

Let’s be honest about it. Malcolm X scared the hell out of us–black and white. He scared all of us good, polite people. He reminded those of us who are white (even us white liberals) that we all benefit, directly or indirectly, from racism–even though we may not believe in it or overtly practice it ourselves. And he reminded those of us who are black that every time we let racism go by unchallenged (and just grin and bear it), we may be in effect contributing to it ourselves.

And none of us likes to hear this. We are all “nice” people. Our hearts are in the right place. And we’d like to believe that good intentions are enough. But then this Malcolm fellow comes along and snatches away our exalted views–and we don’t like it. But we will never get to the promise, if we don’t recognize the pain. We will never get to the future, if we don’t stand up to the present. And we will never get to Martin’s dream, if we don’t face Malcolm’s nightmare.

America needed both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

And I think it still does.

peace and unrest,

tony