CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arguably the greatest American of the 20th century. In fact, I believe Dr. King is equal to the Founding Fathers in importance to the American ideals of freedom and ordered liberty.
Nevertheless, during the recent King Day celebration and acting in my new capacity as a commissioner on the West Virginia Martin Luther King Day Commission, my thoughts continually reflected on El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X.
Dr. King spoke to our aspiration to be an equal part of the American dream. His emphasis was on making America live up to the ideals of its Constitution -- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. His focus on Gandhi's principles of nonviolence changed the trajectory of our country and world and has been a source of strength and inspiration for countless millions of those seeking freedom. "We shall overcome," the anthem of the movement, was utilized by the oppressed in South Africa's Soweto Township, Tiananmen Square in China, in North Korea, and during the Arab Spring.
Malcolm X, by contrast, was often mischaracterized as one who taught violence and hate. In reality, Islamic Minister Malcolm taught us self-respect and demanded genuine equality for the African-American community. He espoused the futuristic principles of cooperative economics and self-determination along with the need to have a worldview that linked all oppressed people.
Martin forced the issue with entrenched powers regarding our participation in a society that excluded so many from the fullness of the American experience. I am always concerned that we might be selling out Dr. King's true legacy as an aggressive advocate for the underprivileged by only focusing on the Dream and ignoring the entirety of his work and writings.
Malcolm attempted to prepare the African-American community by promoting self-respect to prepare the Black community once access was achieved. In other words, Minister Malcolm prepared us internally for the access that Dr. King fought for externally.
Malcolm demanded respect as a man at a time when it was rare for a person of color to receive any type of esteem. He refused to be condescended to and would countenance no disrespect from the left or right. Whether fighting conservative calls for retrenchment or liberal paternalism, Malcolm stood in his personhood, as an African-American, like no other. I always revisit Malcolm when Black leaders or the African-American community are marginalized and disrespected. Politicians and those who control community assets and programs must understand that our input must be considered and appreciated or we will respond peacefully like Martin but strongly, as Malcolm taught us, "by any means necessary."
Minister Malcolm was particularly critical of those who sold out the African-American community for private gain or personal access. Whether chastising Black leaders for being out of touch or challenging the Black bourgeoisie to remain close to the grass roots, Malcolm was fearless in his advocacy on behalf of the oppressed.
Interestingly, near the end of their time on earth, Malcolm X was becoming more like King -- and King was becoming more like Malcolm. For instance, Dr. King was very disillusioned at the time of his death over the depth and depravity of racism in the country and the slow pace of the political process for all underprivileged. Just before his assassination, he was planning strategies to advocate for the poor that were more provocative than anything we had ever seen from him.
Near the end of his life, Malcolm X realized that a great deal of the oppressive economic conditions cut across racial boundaries. He realized that many of the poor were used as pawns of a racist system that abused their ignorance for political and economic gains.
Both men should be remembered for their contribution to the struggle.
Yes, during my deliberations with the MLK Holiday Commission and during the events of the King Day celebration, I was thinking about Malcolm and his importance to our community -- and remembering Ossie Davis' eulogy of this great man when he said:
"Malcolm was our manhood, our living, Black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves. ... However we may have differed with him -- or with each other about him and his value as a man -- let his going from us serve only to bring us together, now."
Honoring Dr. King on Jan. 20 was an honor and a privilege. Reflecting on how Minister Malcolm would confront our current situation is my continuing challenge.Fryson, a lawyer, pastor and Chief Diversity Officer for West Virginia University, is a Gazette contributing columnist.