In the beginning there was Jefferson. If Thomas Jefferson had done nothing more than write the Declaration of Independence he would still be immortalized. But he also helped to secure the Bill of Rights, served two terms as President, and doubled the size of America with the Louisiana Purchase. No one, not even George Washington, influenced the direction that our young Republic would take throughout the 1800’s more than Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson’s chief rival was Alexander Hamilton. In 1804 Hamilton was shot and killed by Aaron Burr in the most famous duel in American History, but the struggle between Jefferson and Hamilton’s vision for America lived on well into the twentieth century.
Jefferson envisioned an agrarian America, led by the people, with States that could supersede the Federal branch, while Hamilton wanted to establish a national bank, strengthen the Federal government, and above all promote commerce and manufacturing. For almost two hundred years it seemed that Jefferson was the clear winner. Both Democrats and Republicans claimed him as their own and his name became synonymous with virtue and freedom. And then something changed.
America turned away from its agrarian roots; technology became king; businesses became more powerful than politicians; and the musical “Hamilton” won eleven Tony awards, thrusting the easily forgotten Founding Father into the spotlight. All of this coincided with many historians finally writing honestly about Jefferson’s hypocritical slave owning lifestyle, while also addressing the fact that the man who wrote “All men are created equal” also said that “(blacks were)…racially inferior and as incapable as children.” It was as if Hamilton had risen and got the last laugh.
In addition to the dozens of politicians who have evoked Jefferson, Martin Luther King quoted the third President in his “Letter from Birmingham City jail” and in his stirring “I have a Dream” speech. During his ministry, preaching non-violent protest from 1955-1968, King was often denigrated by white Americans as an extremist and even a Communist, but as the country slowly desegregated and overturned its archaic racist laws King’s legacy continually rose in stature until, in 1983, his birthday was made into a National holiday.
During the 1960’s King’s main philosophical rival was Malcolm X whose famous quote “By any means necessary” underscored the stark difference in approach between the two civil rights leaders. While King may have been viewed by many as radical, Malcolm X was generally viewed as dangerous. When a black man of that era says, “I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing,” it’s an invitation for white America to label him a racist and a traitor.
Both men were 39 years old when they were assassinated and as the benchmark view on racism shifted throughout the world so did their legacies. They may both be seen as visionaries but as a non-violent martyr, King’s legacy grew to rival that of Mahatma Gandhi. His message was codified, placed in a sanitized bottle and recited at schools across the country. It was a message that was much more palatable to the majority of Americans than the vitriolic speeches of Malcolm X. Malcolm even went so far to say that “Martin Luther King is just a modern Uncle Tom… keeping negroes defenseless in the face of attack, just as Uncle Tom did on the plantation to keep those negroes defenseless in the face of attack.”
What most people misunderstood, however, was that Malcolm X wasn’t preaching anything that greatly differed from men like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. Like the founding fathers he called for equal rights under the law, equal pay for the same work, and he made it clear that if a person is being brutalized they have the right to defend themselves. Could it be that his message is finally ready to be heard?
It is important to note that right now all of us are living through a watershed moment in history, no different than when Malcolm X, King or JFK were assassinated. The protests that have erupted throughout the world, after a string of killings that culminated in the murder of George Floyd, have the capacity to change the very structure of society. We don’t have to condone looting or arbitrary acts of violence to support an ongoing fight for social justice and police reform. This critical moment is not about one man or one murder, it is the natural cataclysm that occurs when any group of people are forced to live with an undercurrent of fear and violence for many centuries.
This means that the choices we make over the next few months will not only be judged by our grandchildren but will directly affect the world they inherit. We can choose to be passive and conciliatory or we can be proactive and resilient until the barriers are broken down. In the end we may all finally come to understand why Malcolm X is once again rising and what he really meant over fifty years ago when he said, “That's not a chip on my shoulder, that's your foot on my neck.”