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Martin & Malcolm two differing voices

Seattle Times staff columnist

Jerry Large

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X perch on my shoulders.

Martin leans in and tells me we are all the same under the skin. We are bound to love one another by and by.

Malcolm shakes his head. He sighs. Indeed, we may be all the same under the skin, he says. We are all motivated by perceived self-interest. Their self-interest is not our self-interest. Never has been. Never will be.

It is an old debate. It gets a new suit of clothes now and then to fit the style of the times, but its body has not changed much in the centuries that Africans and Europeans have been in America.

I was a good distance from that debate in its 1960s version.

I was a child in a small town on the New Mexico-Texas border. There was no debate. Everyone knew his place clearly.

I was colored. Colored people picked cotton, cleaned houses and mowed lawns. A few of the more ambitious ones preached, or taught little black and brown children their ABCs in an elementary school a couple of blocks from the railroad tracks that separated the town's haves from its have-nots.

Actually, we had been Negroes for several years, but the news was slow in reaching our community. By the time I got it, people in Detroit and Chicago were already black.

I barely knew who Martin Luther King was when he was killed. People in other places had seen things happening, lives changing. But from where I sat, the pictures on the TV news were very remote.

They seemed a little closer on April 4, 1968.

I was on a bus, coming home from a band competition in a nearby town. I was an eighth-grader. It was night and the bus was dark. Someone was playing a radio. Kids were talking and throwing spit wads.

Someone near the radio yelled, "Be quiet." The news was on. They were talking about Memphis, and about someone being shot. I couldn't hear clearly.

"Martin Luther King," someone said. "They shot him." Some of the kids cheered. A saxophone player, sitting near me, said King deserved what he got for causing trouble. The band instructor told the kids who were cheering to knock it off.

Someone said King wasn't as bad as a lot of those people. I was the only black child on the bus. I wished I wasn't there. I stared through a window at blackness, and said nothing.

In the fall, I quit band and signed up for athletics.

Most of the black adults around me had some problems with Martin Luther King. A preacher was supposed to preach, not create problems with white folks.

They were afraid of white folks and didn't want anyone to stir them up. Someone like Adam Clayton Powell was OK. He made trouble, but it was a more personal kind. He wore sharp clothes, talked smoothly and backed down from no one. He tweaked the noses of white people and got away with it. My elders cheered, secretly.

But King wanted something many white people would not tolerate. He wanted equality. That was dangerous.

King didn't get what he wanted. How would he have felt reading a newspaper in 1990?

A black man in the nation's capital has a better chance of being killed than a soldier had in Vietnam.

A government study finds whites who need organ transplants are moved ahead of blacks on lists.

Bush vetoes the Civil Rights Act of 1990.

A majority of white voters support "former" Klansman David Duke in an election for Congress in Louisiana.

Jesse Helms, running a blatantly racist campaign against a black challenger, wins re-election to the Senate.

Black children have the right to be bused across town for a poor education.

I could fill pages with headlines that make one wonder why we celebrate MLK Day. We seem to be moving further from his ideal. His work carried black people (and other people of color, white women, gays, the disabled) a step toward legal fairness. It did not transform the souls of those who would deny that fairness.

We need the holiday to remember him and others who paid for that step. We need the day to keep our dream and theirs alive.

But along with the idealism, we also need a dose of reality.

When I think of King, I think of someone going to white people and pleading a case.

I see Malcolm going to black people and saying take control of your lives.

Live Martin's dream, but not with your eyes closed.

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