MLK, Jr. Isn’t the Only Black Achiever Worthy of Recognition
On January 20, our nation celebrated the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, rightfully recognizing the achievements of one of America's greats. African Americans are understandably proud of this American hero who will forever stand alongside men such as Mohatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela as a moral giant and beacon of hope for humanity. And even though onetime Senate Majority leader Trent Lott recently found himself squirming in the hot seat trying to justify his past opposition to the King Holiday, the political establishment as a whole has by and large embraced the late civil rights figure and added him to the pantheon of great American leaders.
Other important men who pushed the struggle for black liberation, however, have not been as warmly embraced by the broader political culture as of yet, and likely never will be.
Consider, for instance, the likes of Malcolm X and Denmark Vesey. Malcolm's story is recent enough, and has been told so many times, that there's no need to recount the particulars here.
But Vesey, on the other hand, has languished in comparative obscurity since July 2, 1822, the day he was hanged for conspiring, along with numerous South Carolina field-slaves, to secure the black man's freedom through armed revolution. He had been inspired to act by the example of Toussaint L'Overture, the liberator of Haiti, a military genius who engineered victories over both the English army and Napoleon's troops and sent white plantation owners fleeing from his island nation.
Vesey, alas, was betrayed by house-slaves who, fearing the loss of the relative privilege they enjoyed over the brutally overworked field hands, alerted their masters to the impending plot.
It is worth remebering King as well as Vesey and Malcolm these days, because their stories shine a bright light upon one of the glaring hipocrisies of our age. The reason that all but the most unreconstructed racist white politicians celebrate King, but would rather see the names of Malcolm X and Denmark Vesey condemned to the ash-heaps of history, is so plain and simple it scarcely bears elucidation: King was a pacifist, but Malcolm and Vesey pressed the cause of armed struggle.
By and large, white America has never shied away from celebrating wars of liberation—except when liberation meant liberation from them.
George W. Bush spent part of the King holiday celebrating the slain civil rights leader's "working peacefully to resolve racial conflict through speeches, marches and countless nonviolent activities." He spent the rest of it fuming over the French government's announcement that it would refuse to back any early military action against Iraq. As a result, Colin Powell spent the day pressing Europeans to relent; and Condoleeza Rice spent the day composing an editorial to the New York Times pressing the administration's case for war on a skeptical public.
The contrast between the lip-service our leaders pay to King's pacifist ideals and the actions they take behind the scenes could not be more stark, nor more telling.
It is not enough that our nation grant Dr. King a holiday for his memory to be truly honored in the way it deserves. We must demand that our leaders learn to govern by his ideals also.
Mr. Flores writes from Parkville, MD.
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This story was published on February 10, 2003.