This year’s Black History month celebrates the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which, unfortunately only began the fight for equal rights in this country. Thinking back to efforts required to gain implementation of the law suggests two important-but-misunderstood progenitors of the that battle.
At a time when non-violent demonstration, marching on a public street, or sitting in a “whites only” section might result in a beating, jail, or death, these two individuals operated at the radical boundaries of the movement. During this era, I was a college student, who merely participated at the fringes of protest. In recognition of that status—as well as that of being white, male and a pacifist—I admit to lacking “cred” on this matter. That said, however, I want to acknowledge a man and woman, who greatly influenced my views.
I read a biography about the first of these two radicals while I was still in high school. He first came into the American consciousness as a convicted drug pusher, spokesperson for a radical religious group, and vociferous hater of white people. He prodded fellow African-Americans to fight racism “by any means necessary, including violence.” He no doubt came to this belief, because his family had been victimized by the Ku Klux Klan, his father murdered by segregationists, and his confidence shattered by a teacher, who upon learning that he wanted to be an attorney, suggested he focus on something more “realistic” like “carpentry.”
As those who have read his biography or took in the Spike Lee movie know, Malcolm X overcame his hatred and employed his skills, passion, and intelligence to move the national conscience into the now-perceived middle-ground led then by Martin Luther King Jr.
Some seven years after Malcolm was gunned down, I was assigned to Edwards AFB in the high California desert, where I heard about this radical graduate student at UCSD—just a couple of hours drive to the south of my base. Like Malcolm, this Brandies graduate—who studied philosophy there with Herbert Marcuse—endured racism at an early age. As a teenager in Alabama, she gained law enforcement’s wrath by organizing interracial study groups, and she had known the young girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.
Also like Malcolm, she became reviled for her radical beliefs, which became evidenced by membership in the Communist and Black Panther Parties. In 1970, she protested on behalf of three, African-American prison inmate known as the Soledad Brothers and perceived as political scapegoats. As an outgrowth of her politics and support for the Soledad Brothers, she was arrested and served eighteen months in prison for allegedly supplying weapons used during an attempted escape at the trial of one of the three.
After being acquitted in 1972, Angela Davis continued as an educator and advocate for women’s equality, prison reform, and political/economic alliances that cross color lines. She continues to quietly do so now as the author of several books, including Women, Race, and Class and as a professor at UC Santa Cruz.
Malcolm and Angela have had a profound impact on my personal beliefs, symbolized by the prominence of their portraits posted side-by-side in the early ‘70s on a living room wall in the bachelor officer quarters of this guy known, interchangeably then, as the “radical lieutenant” and the “hippie” lieutenant. Unlike fearless Malcolm and Angela, I never came close to earning those admirable distinctions.