I recently read Unbroken and Boys in the Boat, and today finished Bryan Stevenson’s compelling Just Mercy: a Story of Justice and Redemption, which should be mandatory reading for every Congressperson, legislator, law enforcement official and for all Americans of conscience.
Equally mandatory for Americans should be The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I rarely reread a book in its entirety but it’s one of the few for which I make an exception. I’m about to restart it, this time to remember that 50 years ago, Feb. 21, 1965, Malcolm was assassinated.
Malcolm X was a great human rights activist and this anniversary of his assassination comes perhaps at a critical moment in our history. At a time when the GOP is once again rending its garments over comments made by President Barack Obama we need reminders that facing America’s history — a history that’s followed a tortured path winding between triumph and tragedy, sorrows and joys — is challenging, complex and necessary.
Today’s Republican Party, with its renewed emphasis on unquestioned American Exceptionalism, on white entitlement and privilege and its adherence to a Christian America — all in contradiction to the visionary promises of our Founders — today perpetrates privilege while politically profiting from deliberately creating ethnic, racist and religious tension in our body politic.
At a time when America and the world are struggling to embrace strategies and tactics to confront Daesh (ISIS/ ISIL) and other nihilistic terrorist organizations and to create alliances with Arab and Muslim nations to confront the evil of those groups, President Obama correctly has argued for a more nuanced approach to defining the conflict.
The GOP, culturally, theologically and globally illiterate, rejects nuance — and gets it wrong — again.
The GOP went ballistic when President Obama challenged Republican patriarchal Exceptionalist assumptions at the National Prayer Breakfast. When Obama said, “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ,” you would have thought that the horsemen of the Apocalypse were storming the gates of Washington.
Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore said, “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.”
Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani later echoed Gilmore’s sentiments saying that he does “not believe that the president loves America.”
“He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me,” Giuliani said. “He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country,”
Gilmore’s and Giuliani’s unapologetic dog-whistles should be condemned.
Obama was correct in his historical analysis.
Gilmore’s home, Virginia, was refuge to Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens who believed the Confederacy to be “… the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence … With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the Negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system… It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator.”
Obama also gets it right when he refuses to label our enemy “Islamic Terrorism.” He’s right for three simple reasons: First, by calling it Islamic terrorism he would be giving legitimacy to the terrorists who desperately want to be identified as Muslim. Second, if America wants to have Muslim allies in the fight against Daesh he needs to use language that honors our allies — and their understanding of our common enemy — and not risk alienating them, and third, the evil and depredations of Daesh have no more to do with Islam than Alexander Stephen’s Confederacy had to do with Christianity.
We can’t pretend that the Crusades didn’t happen — and that en route to save the Holy Land the Crusaders killed every Jew, Gypsy and Eastern Orthodox Christian they could find.
We can’t pretend that the Holocaust didn’t happen — a horror unprecedented in its evil, extended by the willful blindness of witnesses who refused to act and speak.
We can’t ignore injustice. We can’t escape history by pretending something didn’t happen. We can’t pretend that America wasn’t built by slave labor on stolen land. We can’t ignore the fact that Jim Crow happened, that thousands of Americans were lynched, some well into the 20th century, because of their skin color, and that there are still isolated communities, separated by ethnicity, color and income, living on the fringes of our body politic.
Malcolm realized that he wasn’t fighting the white man — he was fighting injustice and it was that struggle that in the end led to his death.
If we want change we need to be curious, to understand the world around us as it evolves and changes — we need to adapt, not to yearn for times past.
We, too, need to struggle, to face history, to celebrate the good, acknowledge the wrongs and set right what is fixable. We’re great enough to overcome injustice and to overcome evil without losing our souls and conscience.
At the funeral, actor Ossie Davis eulogized Malcolm X: “There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times. Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain—and we will smile. Many will say turn away—away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man—and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate—a fanatic, a racist—who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.”
Be curious: listen to the Other – For if you did you would know him.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.