“No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver—no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.” -Malcolm X

Later today I will be on KOOP radio discussing the contribution of Malcolm X to American politics along with Bishop Sterling Lands. The show is Pedro Gatos’ “Bringing Light from the Darkness,” and it will be my first time to have such a discussion with Bishop Lands.

When I was younger, Martin Luther King, Albert Schweitzer and Gandhi were my political role models. Having been raised in a comfortable white world, such gentle methods seemed enough. Malcolm X seemed too caustic for my tastes. When he called white people “blue eyed devils,” it was easy for a white teenager from Dallas, like myself, to dismiss what he was saying as hateful. As I have gotten older, like so many others, I have realized that Malcolm X was as important to civil rights as was Dr. King. Without the prophetic uncloaking of white America’s hypocrisy on the issue of race, and without the threat of black Americans actually defending themselves from the violence that is racism, the peaceful methods of Dr. King might have meant a reduction of hate, without an addition of actual power for black Americans over their own lives.

Malcolm X taught us that, if two parties are unequal in power, dialogue often only serves to reinforce the discrepancy in power. Liberals often say, “speak the truth to power.” But Malcolm X was not a liberal. He was a radical. And he said, in so many words, “power already knows the truth, it just doesn’t want to share.” Malcolm X also taught us that we cannot win self-respect by gaining the approval of our oppressors and that, when power is given to us by another, it can always be taken back.

Later in life, Malcolm X renounced what some had seen as hateful depictions of white people, but it made his criticism of white power even clearer. His central focus had never really been about hating white people. He was expressing the anguish of the  victims of white supremacy in America. By stirring the anger of black Americans, he was bringing their power to the surface. By describing the ugly face of white racism from a black perspective, he was also speaking honestly to the frightened human beings who were hiding under the mask of white supremacy. For many of us, it was the first time anyone had spoken honestly to us about the ugliness of our participation in racist structures.