Their lives were the stuff of legends, but Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch managed last night to dispel a few of the myths surrounding civil rights icons Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
In a speech attended by more than 100 Western Maryland College students, faculty, staff and the public, Mr. Branch challenged the characterizations of Dr. King as the peaceful warrior and Malcolm X as the apostle of violence.
"It's striking that most of what Americans deal with regarding Malcolm X and Dr. King is an image, almost a gloss, that represents the legend that remarkably has little to do with the lives of the people themselves," Mr. Branch said before the lecture. "Most people are not comfortable discussing race or issues surrounding race.
"It is those things about which there is an uneasiness that they want to discuss in glazed terms. This is the situation with both blacks and whites."
He said, for example, that Malcolm X has become known to the present generation as a symbol of virility, a posthumously recognized character who symbolizes the "in-your-face attitude."
"Malcolm is really almost like those Nike commercials," Mr. Branch told the audience. "Sort of, 'Life is short. Play hard. X.' "
"It's great irony, though," Mr. Branch said, "all these kids sitting around with a hat that says X and trying to make a statement, when what Malcolm meant by the X was, 'Who am I?' "
Dr. King, on the other hand, has been held up as the black George Washington, although he was more volatile than Malcolm ever was, Mr. Branch said.
"He was a man thought of as comfortable with presidents, but that was not the case," Mr. Branch said. "There were governors and mayors who would not meet with him."
"I believe that, in a personal sense, King was tormented by the fact that he was not as good a person as he thought he should be," Mr. Branch said. "He was trying to redeem his personal demons through public acts.
"King was anything but a comfortable person. He was more disturbing than Malcolm X."
Mr. Branch said people are more willing to embrace a symbol and apply their own meaning to it than to understand the reality and admire the men for their humanity and mortality.
"All we get is the X on the hat and the increasingly lethargic celebration of King Day," Mr. Branch said.
"Some of this comes from a historian who has spent literally a decade [studying] these people.
"If they were as simple as the legends, they would never have gotten anywhere in this world."