When I was growing up in Western Kentucky, all I ever heard about Martin Luther King Jr. was that he was a communist. Period. End of story. No questions. I was in the fifth grade when he was assassinated and really had no idea why his death was so significant; although I did get the feeling he was a very important man, even if he was a communist. When I started high school, my family had moved to Birmingham, Alabama. According to classmates and several adults who should have known better, every problem under the sun was Dr. King’s fault. (Some of these same “adults” also believed that men walking on the moon were why the oil prices had skyrocketed. Go figure.)
I finally decided to find out for myself exactly who this man was. Up until then, I knew nothing of Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott or Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream Speech.” I was astounded to discover that Dr. King was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and was committed to ahimsa, the Hindu and Buddhist principle of nonviolence. I later read Gandhi’s book, “My Experiments with Truth” and that’s when I discovered an essential quality of all great men: the ability to recognize truth, have the courage to embrace it and the commitment to follow it through, even if it may conflict with personal or widely held beliefs. Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi believed in nonviolence down to the core of their being and never wavered from their convictions.
That same commitment to the truth was a core conviction of Malcolm X. Unfortunately, this little white boy didn’t know a thing about Malcolm X until college, when someone showed me an interview he did with Alex Haley. Over the years I attempted several times to read his autobiography, but allowed myself to be distracted every time I picked it up. It wasn’t until I saw Spike Lee’s movie of Malcolm’s life that I began to grasp the depth of this man’s greatness. During Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Mecca, he had an epiphany where he realized that God, love and the inherent divinity of men is not exclusive to one faith, race or culture. Truth was always an evolving discovery with Malcolm X. While in prison, Malcolm recognized the truth in the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Despite the controversies that surrounded Muhammad’s personal life, the truth from those teachings resonated with Malcolm X, and lead to the deeper truth he found on his pilgrimage. Malcolm X was not a man to run from the truth, or twist it to suit his own personal needs. He embraced it and allowed it to bring about his rebirth.
It is a terrible injustice that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X died so young, but their impact is timeless. After Dr. King’s assassination, I saw a political cartoon of him speaking to Mahatma Gandhi in heaven. Gandhi is smiling at Dr. King and the caption reads: “You know, the absurd thing about these assassins is that they think they can actually kill you!”