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The influence of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X on hip hop: "... success and prosperity for the majority of black Americans in the 21st century only will be achieved by a strong coalition of Christians and Muslims who are dedicated to the values of democracy and social justice.".

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., and Malcolm X were the two most important leaders of African-American youth in the 20th century. Black Americans chose them because of their unique perspectives on civil and human rights, integration and nationalism, and their dedication to the spiritual values of their faith communities--Christianity and Islam, respectively. Both shared a common vision in their ability to relate the social justice issues of black America to the moral integrity of the U.S. and the world. However, contemporary media tend to minimize the complex interactions between the ideas of King and Malcolm on global human rights by presenting the two men as polar opposites, whose views are frozen in time by the titles of two of their speeches, "I Have a Dream" and "By Any Means Necessary."

What is the political legacy of King and Malcolm X for young people in "hip hop America" today, when democracy and human fights are compromised by the war on terrorism, the Patriot Act, and racial profiling? First, young people must continue the endeavor to achieve global human rights because freedom and dignity are universal birthrights, created by God and not by government. Second, success and prosperity for the majority of black Americans in the 21st century only will be achieved by a strong coalition of Christians and Muslims who are dedicated to the values of democracy and social justice. King and Malcolm X never achieved such a coalition for the liberation of their people because they were too divided by their religious, political, and personal differences to have a meeting. Their failure to work together was one of the major political mistakes in the quest for freedom of African-Americans.

King was born in 1929 to a privileged family of black Baptist preachers in Atlanta, Ga., and became a minister as a teenager. His higher education--undergraduate work at Morehouse College and graduate studies at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University--culminated in 1953, when he received his doctorate in theology. Although King grew up in the segregated South in a period when the U.S. was a violently racist nation, his education provided him the opportunity to develop a fascinating religious and political perspective on nonviolence, which became a key to the civil rights demonstrations in the 1950s and 1960s.

His sources for nonviolent direct action included the New England philosopher Henry David Thoreau's "Essay on Civil Disobedience," presenting the idea that citizens have a moral right to resist an immoral system. King also studied German philosopher Georg Hegel's dialectical process, which discussed the possibility for change and growth through conflict and straggle. Mahatma Gandhi's Hindu method of nonviolent resistance that was successful in India's demonstrations against British colonialism in the 1930s was another source of inspiration and critical reflection.

Yet, the central spiritual thrust for his work was "agape," the Christian concept of divine redemptive love that King believed could transform the evil of segregation by countering racism with nonviolence. Agape was distinguished from "filio," or brotherly love, which is conditional, and "eros," love of the flesh and material things that decay. Agape focused on God's divine love expressed through freedom, dignity, and awareness of the universal interconnections between all human beings.

King wanted to raise the movement to a higher moral ground. He believed in initiating a struggle for the spiritual salvation of the U.S. It was vital to acknowledge "somebodyness"--that blacks, whites, and all Americans (rich, middle class, and poor) are born with rights of dignity and freedom since everyone is created in the image of God. The idea was to form a beloved multicultural community based on forgiveness, awareness of the interconnections of all citizens, and the acknowledgement of particular histories and policies of racism and oppression that must be addressed and repaired to heal the soul of the nation.

King became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., in 1954, the year the Supreme Court--in the case of Brown v. Board of Education---ended the legality of racially segregated schools. In 1955, King had his first national opportunity to utilize his nonviolent philosophy in organized political action when he was asked to be the spokesman for the Montgomery bus boycott. It began when Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in the white section of a public bus. For the next year, black citizens walked, bicycled, and carpooled in the most remarkable demonstration of nonviolent political action since Gandhi's anti-colonial protests in India 20 years earlier. It ended victoriously in November, 1956, when the Court ruled that the Alabama segregation laws for public transportation were unconstitutional.

King and other black preachers--Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, James Lawson, Wyatt T. Walker, and Ella Baker--established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. Baker alone was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In the 1960s, these two civil fights groups became famous as they organized demonstrations, meetings, and rallies across the South to challenge segregation and register African-American voters. King, as president of SCLC, traversed the nation, teaching, preaching, and marching to promote the philosophy of nonviolent direct action. On the grassroots level, many of the activists who risked mob beatings, police brutality, and jail because of their participation in freedom marches were black teenagers and young children. Their courage and commitment to the freedom struggle and to King's leadership was profound and inspiring.

By 1956, a great deal of black blood had been spilled challenging the Jim Crow system, but the civil rights movement had achieved some major victories on the path to full black citizenship. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Pres. Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty established the promise for full integration of African-Americans into society.

However, one year later, when King, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, brought his nonviolent protest campaign to impoverished urban ghettos in northern cities such as Chicago and Cleveland, he was compelled to expand his critical thinking about the persistence of racism and the need for a global human rights struggle. King's moral opposition to the Vietnam War and military spending are important aspects of his work that many Americans choose to ignore. Moreover, he provided profound analysis of poverty as it related to the corporate capitalist exploitation of black America and people of color throughout the world. The latter concept coincides with Malcolm X's international ideals. However, neither leader saw his goals to total fruition, as Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, and King three years later.

Malcolm X was the national spokesperson for the Nation of Islam in the early 1960s, and founder of the Sunni Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1964. He was bum Malcolm Little, in Omaha, Neb., on May 19, 1925, to parents who were black nationalist organizers for activist Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. His father was murdered by white supremacists in 1931. He and his siblings were dispersed to separate foster homes by the public relief authorities in Lansing, Mich., in 1939. Malcolm became a troubled teenager, involved in criminal activities in Boston and New York during the 1940s.

His spiritual transformation from Malcolm Little to Malcolm X occurred in a Massachusetts prison from 1947 to 1952, as he became a self-educated, disciplined convert to the Nation of Islam. The young male membership of the religion had been decimated by FBI persecution in the 1940s, so leader Elijah Muhammad used Malcolm's youthful charisma and spirited oratory to reinvigorate the community. As a result of Muhammad's successful black nationalist economic programs and Malcolm's militant speeches and television appearances, the Nation of Islam achieved national prominence as the richest black organization in American history.

However, in the wake of Pres. John Kennedy's assassination in 1963, a public controversy over the politics of religious identity in African-American Muslim communities between Muhammad and Malcolm evolved into a permanent separation. Establishing a new spiritual and political identity, Malcolm abandoned the heterodox, racial-separatist philosophy and converted to the multiracial Sunni Islam during the last year of his life.

In March, 1964, he founded the Sunni Muslim Mosque, Inc., in Harlem, N.Y., as the base for a spiritual program to eliminate economic and social oppression against black Americans. Then, Malcolm made the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in April, 1964. There, he changed his name from Malcolm X to El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, which signified a new link to mainstream Islam. Malcolm's Sunni Muslim persona became a significant model for many African-Americans who had converted to mainstream Islam.

After Mecca, he traveled extensively through North and West Africa, establishing important religious anti political linkages with the Muslim world. These profound international experiences deepened his Pan-African political perspective, which connected African-American Islam to global black unity and West African cultural and political roots. When the new El-Shabazz came back to the U.S., he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity in New York City on June 29, 1964, to promote his political perspective which linked the African-American straggle for social justice to global human rights issues.

He hoped to interact and work with King in political and economic activism and articulated a cogent plan for black liberation that included a separation of religion and politics, open expressions of disgust with the American system, and a United Nations initiative to expand the civil rights movement into an international black alliance for human rights.

During the final weeks of his life, he began to talk about the African-American freedom struggle as an aspect of "a worldwide revolution" against racism, classism, and sexism, Utilizing the political lessons that he had learned from his Muslim contacts in the Middle East and Africa, he constructed a model of black liberation that appealed to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Aspects of his radical black nationalism drew in African-Americans throughout the black political spectrum from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to the black left. Because of his potential (if he had lived) to unite many black Muslims and Christians in the U.S. and abroad in a global liberation struggle that could have involved the United Nations, there seems little doubt that the American intelligence community had the incentive to be involved in Malcolm X's murder.

The emergence of hip hop

Musician Grandmaster Flash defined hip hop as "the only genie of music that allows us to talk about almost anything. Musically, it allows us to sample and play and create poetry to the beat of the music. It's highly controversial, but that's the way the game is." Hip hop culture began in the 1970s in the Bronx, N.Y., among African-American, Latino, and Caribbean youth who created intercultural crews ("new kinds of families") of MCs/rappers, disc jockeys, break dancers, and graffiti artists whose art and style expressed resistance to postindustrial conditions and the destruction of jobs, affordable housing, and support systems in working-class black and Latino neighborhoods at the beginning of the Ronald Reagan-George H.W. Bush era. These conditions became the norm for black America in the 1980s and 1990s. The rise of a new prison industrial complex eventually jailed nearly one-third of all African-American men in their 20s.

Drawing on subjects such as racial profiling, a new underground economy generated by widespread drug addiction in America, youth deaths from police brutality and torture, AIDS. and new assaults on affirmative action, rap music became the primary medium for documenting and protesting the hardness of life for black youth in the 'hood. The music, poetry, rhythms, style, clothing, language, and life experiences of hip hop artists reflected black peoples' encounters with Islam, Christianity, prison life, death, violence, dings, love, sex, hope, and despair in their urban communities. Soon, rap poetry was being composed by young people across the globe. Black Americans once again had created profound music, art, and spirituality out of the rains of their daily lives.

The mainstream media focused on the sensationalist lifestyles and rhymes of gangsta rap in the 1990s, which highlighted police brutality, prison life, gangbanging, black-on-black violence, drug dealing, homophobia, and sexism in Southern California's hip hop culture. Of course, these themes validated the stereotypes of black people that have dominated the music and film industries for decades, and provided yet another rationale for a criminal justice system that now imprisons more people per capita than any other nation. Some of the scholarship anti social commentary on hip hop culture also unwittingly has fed into the Hollywood marginalization of rap music and the "Hard Right's New Black Strategy" by focusing on discontinuities between hip hop and other black music traditions and/or the "hip hop generation" and "the civil rights generation."

Nonetheless, much of the poetry of this culture contains, in scholar Tricia Rose's useful phrase, "hidden transcripts," Rather than highlighting its discontinuities with other parts of black culture, it is more useful to acknowledge the remarkable continuities of hip hop poetry with West African griot traditions and the protest themes of the blues, jazz, and Black Arts musicians of the 1960s, represented by groups such as the Last Poets. Rap presents serious social, political, and spiritual critiques of systematic racism and classism, just as was done four decades ago by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.

Richard Brent Turner is an associate professor of religion, Department of Africana Studies, Wayne State University, Detroit, Mich., and author of Islam in the African-American Experience.
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Title Annotation:Life In America
Author:Turner, Richard Brent
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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