Malcolm X film nudges memories of a distant day


That summer I believed in Martin Luther King, but I wasn't too clear on the details. King talked of brotherhood, and I embraced that. He talked of love, and I wondered if a jittery America could swing it. He talked of ideals, and even then I knew the game wasn't strictly played that way.

On Eutaw Street that summer, there were people who seemed to have arrived from some other country. I was working as an office boy across from Lexington Market, and these people on the street were peddling a newspaper, and they wore immaculate suits and ties in the stifling downtown heat.

The newspaper was called Muhammad Speaks. The year was 1962. The paper said white people were blue-eyed devils. It said racial integration was a naive dream and Martin Luther King a false prophet. The paper kept quoting someone named Malcolm X.

That summer, Malcolm began to haunt me -- which is what he wanted to do. Now he haunts us again, because a filmmaker named Spike Lee wants him to. It is not merely Malcolm's life on the screen, but also a 30-year snapshot of Americans trying to deal with each other's race.

Malcolm was the cynic to King's lofty idealism, the warrior to King's pacifism, the man who insisted color was everything (until the last year of his life) while King was telling us it didn't have to be.

In Baltimore that summer, there were still places where black people weren't allowed to buy a meal. When they went for jobs, white employers held out their hands but winked behind their backs. The fix was still in. Meanwhile, white people drove to downtown jobs through black neighborhoods, frustrated, demoralized, furious places they thought they could ignore and Malcolm X insisted they'd better not.

Malcolm X was the one who brought white America the bad news: Things were going to get worse before they got better. He insisted on saying what he saw, and not merely what whites wanted to see.

That summer, I bought copies of Muhammad Speaks and tried to talk to the men in their suits who were selling it. They politely turned away. I brought copies of the paper to the office where I worked, where people turned away again, only not so politely. The people in the office were white. To them, this Nation of Islam business was something out there on the fringes. In those dim, distant days, most whites assumed there was only one legitimate voice for blacks, one homogenized black attitude, and it was Dr. King who was its official articulator.

To them, his talk of integration sounded reasonable, if not now then at some unspecified time down the road, maybe after they'd moved to suburbia, if only King could keep everybody calm long enough. This Malcolm X fellow, his was the voice of craziness.

But, exactly! In his 1973 book, "The Death and Life of Malcolm X," Peter Goldman wrote:

"The ghetto had been cursing whitey for years, in its own parlors and chicken shacks and street-corner rallies, but seldom to its face; so seldom, indeed, that a black man who did so seemed to whites presumptively insane . . . and was so accorded a kind of gingerly safe-conduct against reprisal.

"Malcolm was the crazy . . . gone public: He undertook to carry Harlem's fury downtown, to tell white people to their faces, in their own mass media, what ordinary blacks had been saying about them backstairs for all those years."

A lot of this was very confusing to white liberals who embraced King 30 years ago, and still is. Some worry that King's brotherhood talk turned out to be a bill of goods, a ruse to keep them occupied while angry blacks who had no notions of integration sneaked in the back door.

In other words, King's talk of brotherhood eased the way for reluctant whites on Capitol Hill, none of whom would have given equal-rights legislation a second look had it been energized by Malcolm's angry talk.

Today we have the newspapers all reporting big crowds going to see Spike Lee's new movie about Malcolm, but the world outside the theaters still carries too many unexpected leftovers from long ago: angry, decayed neighborhoods; gaping differences between white and black income; interracial suspicions that haven't gone away.

The little business where I worked as an office boy 30 years ago closed its doors a few years later and moved to suburbia. The owner believed in Dr. King and brotherhood and all that, but he wasn't too confident about some of the details.

You can still see well-dressed men on Eutaw Street, the way you did back then, selling separatist literature. But if Malcolm's mentioned inside, the message is blurred. Toward the end of his life, he was talking about judging people as individuals, and not as skin colors.

I bought one of the newspapers the other day, and then I tried to talk to the man who was selling them. He turned away politely, not wishing to converse. With the same politeness, I handed him back his newspaper.

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