A warning in advance, dear readers, this one is longer than most! But it's good, and it's interesting, and I think it's something important. Enjoy!
What is an appropriate response to injustice? This question is inextricably bound up with the very founding of the United States. In response to injustices levied by the crown such as the forced quartering of British troops in American homes, dissolving colonial legislatures, and the 18th century hashtag equivalent “taxation without representation,” the founding fathers took up their guns in militant, violent protest. They charged into open revolt against their sovereign state in defiance of all law and tradition. The resulting war killed more than 32,000 people, over 25,000 of them revolutionary soldiers and civilians. The founding fathers are lauded for this, held up as paragons of virtue who defended their inalienable rights by any means necessary.
When it comes to militancy from other people, however, we are far less accepting. Take, for example, Malcolm X. He’s well known now for being the more militant counterpart to Martin Luther King, Jr., and perhaps the best example of this is his “The Ballot or The Bullet” speech. In it, Malcolm X equates a ballot to any other weapon, one that can be used to grant Black Americans their aim of political representation. He also warns that if the government is “unwilling or unable to defend the lives and the property of Negroes, it’s time for Negroes to defend themselves,” and urges Black Americans to purchase rifles and shotguns. He ends the speech by warning that “the type of Black man on the scene in America today doesn't intend to turn the other cheek any longer” and that “if we don't cast a ballot, it's going to end up in a situation where we're going to have to cast a bullet,” that the government can only deprive its citizens of their rights for so long before the citizens are forced to take up arms against it. It's a bold speech, one that is in direct conflict with the videos we see so often of protestors passively enduring the firehose or the bite of attack dogs, a speech that condones fighting back against savage injustice.
However, contrary to what many believe, Malcolm X doesn’t incite actual violence or breaking the law. He explicitly argues that his belief in the importance of self defense “doesn't mean you're going to get a rifle and form battalions and go out looking for white folks ... that would be illegal and we don't do anything illegal.” He simply argues that, if the government continues to deprive them of their rights, Black Americans may need to arm themselves to preserve their own liberties. His brand of militance is, on the whole, somewhat tamer than that of our founding fathers, and the attitude behind it, that one's rights must be defended by oneself if they will not be defended by one's sovereign state, is pretty much the foundational belief of the revolutionary war. And yet, when asked about their opinions about Malcolm X, 41% of white Americans view him unfavorably, compared with 26% who think of him favorably, and the LA Times identifies what they call “a lingering white perception of [Malcolm X] as a dangerous militant.”
What accounts for this unfavorable perception? It can’t be an honest dislike of his militancy in and of itself, given that this problem doesn’t arise when considering the far more militant founding fathers. One reason is possibly that most white Americans simply don’t know very much about Malcolm X, other than that he's the scarier black leader of the 1960s. But I think there’s something behind that, a reason the white education about Malcolm X has focused more than anything else on portraying his militance as uniquely extreme. White Americans - and I believe this is true for many of us because it’s true, at the very least, for me - are made profoundly uncomfortable by the idea that our own country, the injustices it perpetrates against some of its people, and our unknowing or uncaring participation in these injustices, could make a group of people want to arm themselves. And we're made even more uncomfortable by the idea that this arming could be the completely rational response to our own actions and the actions of our country. After all, when a man tells us that our country is requiring him and others like him to take up weapons to defend their rights, there are only two options: either he’s right, or he's a dangerous militant. The idea that such militance could be both advocated and entirely reasonable when it comes to the country we love makes us so uncomfortable that we immediately choose the other option, and vilify those oppressed for our own peace of mind.
However, there are few things more dangerous in the world, few forces more destructive, than the placing of our mental comfort above sober and honest introspection about the way we treat people. This is definitely the most powerful, and perhaps the fundamental, force that perpetrates oppression. To avoid confronting our less appealing aspects we retreat into the comfort of declaring ourselves not the problem and vilify anyone whose words or ideas make us uncomfortable in that security. But here’s the thing: in doing so we become the very oppressors we pretend we aren’t. To fight oppression we need to honestly consider the ways we support oppression both consciously and unconsciously, and one of those ways is in the ways we define those who are fighting for their own rights. If the founding fathers deserve veneration for being determined to defend themselves from oppression by any means necessary then so, undeniably, does Malcolm X.
With excitement and optimism,