THURSDAY Column with Mohammed Adamu
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By Mohammed Adamu
The post-emancipation ‘March On Washington’ of the 60s in demand of freedom and civil rights for Afro-Americans, evokes very faint memories of a late 90s hypothetical play which I read, titled ‘The Meeting’, courtesy the United States Information Service, USIS Abuja. The play fictionalizes an imaginary meeting, in a hotel room, between the two most prominent characters of the black civil rights movement, namely the fiery but peace-preaching Baptist Minister Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the equally fiery but violence-preaching Minister of the Nation Of Islam, Malcolm El-Shabbaz X. Both ministers of two mutually exclusive religious persuasions, Christianity and Islam, were motivated by the same passion –the liberation of the Afro-American from a morbidly post-emancipation racist white America that still viewed and treated blacks less than humans.
Back in the sixties King’s and Malcolm’s ‘peaceful’ versus ‘violent’ methods of achieving their common goal had been the subject even of fiercer controversy. Martin Luther, drawing inspiration from the Biblical virtue of ‘turning the other cheek’ had insisted that ‘loving the enemy’ was a more effective method of self libration. Although he had unequivocally warned white America “The sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality”, and although he had promised that “The whirlwind of revolt” would “continue to shake the foundation of” America, yet King had insisted that this was still achievable through ‘non-violence’, because, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that”. And on another occasion he had said that “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word…. I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear”.
Malcolm X on the other hand, equally claiming to draw inspiration from the teachings of Islam, under the mentorship then of the Honorable Elija Mohammed, had put forward the Mosaic argument of ‘measure for measure’, ‘an eye for an eye’, and ‘a tooth for a tooth’ as his guiding philosophy. In fact thereafter Malcolm X’s rallying call would go even beyond the Mosaic to champion a rather extra-scriptural, more Machiavellian ideology for the struggle, namely ‘By Any Means Necessary’. It was in defense of this philosophy that Malcolm X said to black Americans: “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on your shoulder, send him to the cemetery”. By the way, “If you are not ready to die for it” he said, “put the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary”.
Both Malcolm and King had criticized each other’s approach to the struggle. Malcolm had not only implied King in his generalized tagging of black weaklings as ‘House Negros’, he had in fact pointedly referred to him as a “20th c Uncle Tom”. King on the other hand had described Malcolm approach as “Fiery, demagogic oratory”, warning that such “in the black ghettos, urging Negros to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief”.
And although these two great black-rights activists once had a less than two minutes chance meeting at the Capitol in Washington, their fiercely opposing modus operandi was most probably the reason that the need for any collaboration between them was virtually unnecessary and thus the necessity too, for any planned meeting of the two –all through their days struggles- was practically obviated by the fact of its superfluous unwarrantedness. As a matter of fact, it was shortly after the Washington chance meeting that Malcolm would be Assassinated; and three years after which too, King was cut down by the assassin’s bullet. In fairness to Malcolm X, in spite of his fiery temperament he was still the more pacifist of the two who had publicly spoken in favor of closing ranks between the two, when he said;
“if capitalistic Kennedy and communistic Khrushchev can find something common on which to form a united front despite their tremendous ideological differences, it is a disgrace for Negro leaders not to be able to submerge our ‘minor’ differences in orders to seek a common solution to a common problem posed by a common enemy’’.
Alas, the meeting of King and Malcolm, at which to reconcile their mutually opposing approaches to a common problem, in reality did not happen. But it did eventually in the world of make-belief. It was the fact that it did not hold that gave fillip to the wild literary imagination of this wonderful playwright (whose name I am unable to recall) who fictionalized this one-plot play titled ‘The Meeting’, to give America and the rest of the world a sneak posthumous preview –if you will- of what a typical meeting of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X could have looked like. If I recall very well, the make-belief meeting which takes place in a neutral hotel room is hotly conducted amidst the frequent, often needless, distrustful intervention of both King’s and Malcolm’s body guards each time their two principals pitch to a point of verbal fisticuffs in their unyielding defense of the legitimacy of their different methods.
But the high point of their debate was an analysis of the recent King-led ‘March On Washington’ which Malcolm, in like coins, had boycotted to pay back King. Malcolm now says something to the effect “I heard that while you marched in Washington you had whites pelting stones at you?” And King, while confirming this incident, and in a dramatic fashion typical of his preacherment, narrates how this particularly heavy rock from booing white passers-by had struck this particular little black girl on the forehead, and how this tragic event had drawn the attention of virtually everyone on the march that day, as the poor black girl fell bleeding profusely while the racist white group from which direction the stone had been thrown, had stood by, laughing crookedly and still raring to throw some more.
Martin Luther proudly narrated to Malcolm how, as the marchers parried and fenced against more and more red herrings of stones and other objects, he had personally lapped the poor wounded girl while medics among the marchers administered first aid on her; and how gently he and others had lifted her into a utility ambulance, as the march proceeded, even as he adds rather self-appraisingly that the incident was an opportunity for the demonstration of his philosophy of peace, love, caring, forgiveness and longsuffering; -and to which a painfully disgusted Malcolm replied, something to the effect that ‘that is exactly what the white racists want; victims that will not hit back; victims who are so pacifist that they will not even defend themselves; victims who are so cowardly self-hating that they do not know that even in the Bible there is a limit to ‘turning the other cheek’.
And Malcolm proceeds to say something to the effect that King’s cowardly reaction to this painful incident actually underscores the fundamental difference between their methods; that whereas King applied the remedy of a ‘House Negro who always loved the white master more than the white master loved himself, he Malcolm would’ve handled it with the fearlessness of a field Negro’; and that if he had been on the march, he would’ve ensured one of two things: that the white guy who threw that stone either never lived again to throw another, or if he ever lived thereafter, to never, ever be able to throw a stone at anybody for the rest of his life.
For the Afro-American it has never been about Floyd really; it has always been about the seizing of rare but opportune moments, at any point in time, to send a clear and unambiguous message to the racist white American, that ‘enough is enough’. That after four hundred years of ‘turning the other cheek’ the scripture by now must’ve been fulfilled, and it is time to let go on singing ‘we shall overcome’, and be prepared to do some ‘swinging’!
Like the Jewish rallying call against the humiliation on the ‘Massada’, there is always a time to say ‘Never Again!’