Malcolm X, as a member of the Nation of Islam, preached anti-Semitism and called the white man “devil.” After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X dismissed the murder as a case of “the chickens coming home to roost.”
In Spike Lee’s biographical drama, “Malcolm X,” a white teenage girl approaches the angry activist and says, “Excuse me, Mr. X. Hi. I’ve read some of your speeches, and I honestly believe that a lot of what you have to say is true. And I’m a good person, in spite of what my ancestors did, and I just — I wanted to ask you, what can a white person like myself who isn’t prejudiced, what can I do to help you … further your cause?” He stares sternly, and replies, “Nothing.” She leaves in tears.
But Malcolm X changed. He visited Mecca, where he saw people of all colors worshiping together. It changed the way he thought. He repudiated his anger toward whites after discovering that people were more similar than they were different. He renounced the racist ideology of the Nation of Islam, and in doing so knowingly signed his own death warrant. He was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam.
Alabama Gov. George Wallace, in 1963, proclaimed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” at his inauguration, and later stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama to bar blacks from entering. Nine years later, Wallace took a would-be assassin’s bullet, leaving him paralyzed. Older, wiser and chastened by the attempt on his life, Wallace changed. Wallace, one day and without invitation, went to a black church where 300 black clergymen were holding a conference. He asked to speak. Wallace asked for forgiveness. He said to the church leaders, “I never had hate in my heart for any person. But I regret my support of segregation and the pain it caused the black people of our state and nation. … I’ve learned what pain is, and I’m sorry if I’ve caused anybody else pain. Segregation was wrong — and I am sorry.”
The voters in Alabama returned the former governor to office, but this time, he received black support and made several black appointments. The damage Wallace did through his actions and rhetoric was profound, and despite the assassination attempt, he lived long enough to undo some of it.
Even a Confederate general can change.
Confederate Gen. William Mahone, one of General Robert E. Lee’s most able commanders, owned slaves before the Civil War. But after the war, he led an interracial political movement. He organized and became the leader of the Readjuster Party, the most successful interracial political alliance in the post-emancipation South. In 1881, Mahone was elected to the U.S. Senate, at the time split 37-37 between Republicans and Democrats. But Mahone aligned with the Republicans, the party founded two decades earlier by Northerners trying to stop the expansion of slavery.
From 1879 through 1883, Mahone’s Readjuster Party dominated Virginia, with a governor in the statehouse, two Readjusters in the U.S. Senate and Readjusters representing six of the state’s 10 congressional districts. Under Mahone’s leadership, his coalition also controlled the state legislature, the courts and many of the state’s coveted federal offices.
The Readjusters established what became Virginia State University, the first state-supported college to train black teachers. Democrats described the hated Readjusters and Republicans as advocates of “black domination.”
What about Lt. Gen. James Longstreet? One of Lee’s favorite generals, Longstreet not only became a Republican after the war and served in Republican administrations but also fought against the racist White League in New Orleans.
After the Civil War, Longstreet moved to New Orleans, where he urged Southerners to support the Republican Party and endorsed their candidate, Ulysses S. Grant, for president in 1868. He commanded blacks in the New Orleans Metropolitan Police Force against the anti-Reconstruction White League (a paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party) at the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874. He was shot and held captive for several days. He accepted political appointments from Republicans, and even dared criticize Gen. Lee. For this “betrayal,” white Southerners pronounced Longstreet a “scalawag” and “leper of the community.”
Where does this viewing of history through the prism of modern-day feelings end? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once gave advice to a gay young man that today would be heresy. King suggested he battle his feelings, strongly implying that the young man needed therapy and sexual re-orientation. Today, that kind of advice gets one branded a Neanderthal. President John F. Kennedy, frustrated with a high-profile Democrat who hadn’t supported his election, threatened to banish him by giving him an obscure ambassadorship to one of the, as Kennedy put it, “boogie republics” in Africa. Tell that to Black Lives Matter.
History is complicated. And history requires perspective and understanding, something sadly lacking in those who seek to erase history by imposing today’s standards of right and wrong.