To get a sense of quite how far the United States’ myths of itself varies from the reality, consider the example of the Civil Rights Movement, perhaps the quintessential moment of protest in the history of the twentieth century United States, and — alongside the Second World War — the historical process pointed to most often as a demonstration of the superior virtue of the nation.
When telling this story, traditional historians and historians of the national mythos often contrast two distinct traditions within the movement: the non-violent, integrationist, Christian tradition associated with the Reverend Martin Luther King; and the violent, segregationist, anti-Christian tradition associated with Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and other apostles of radical revolutionary resistance to white supremacy.
The authorised history suggests that the great progress that happened as a result of the civil rights struggle came because of the tactical and moral superiority of the King tradition and that the civil rights movement came undone in the later 1960s when it fragmented and more radical and violent strands of protest came to the front. The King tradition was essentially “American”, so it worked; the Malcolm X approach was an alien, “un-American” tradition, and so it was a destructive force in the nation’s life.
Even though it remains the dominant popular narrative, few professional historians today would accept this version of events, not least because this stark binary distinction represents the attitudes of very few of the participants in the struggle. Leaders from either side of this divide often accorded each other a grudging respect and recognised their commitment to black uplift; many figures moved from one camp to another; and black and white activists in the ranks of the struggle often looked to figures from both sides for inspiration. It was perfectly possible to admire both King and X, and many people did so. People even noticed that the progress of the King movement owed a lot to the fact that Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam were lurking threats on the margins.
Moreover, even if we wish to defend the non-violent approach as superior both morally and tactically, does this really mean that its success came from being somehow more American? Or that the Nation of Islam was an un-American phenomenon, something alien to the nation’s history? Celebrating Martin Luther King day as a key moment in the year, something that is reserved only for other members of the national pantheon like presidents, would seem to suggest so.
Anyone growing up in the United States today would be perfectly forgiven for reading the messages around them and concluding that King’s tradition was born purely in the bosom of the Southern Christian church, and that Malcolm X and the teachings of the honourable Elijah Muhammad were imported from Saudi Arabia.
In fact, the truth is not far from being completely the other way round. King’s thinking on non-violence was a direct inheritor of the tactics developed by Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa and India as part of his struggle to decolonise the British imperial world, themselves emerging from the Hindu and Islamic teachings that Gandhi explored in his so-called “experiments with truth”. Black Americans had been closely following the struggle for independence in India since the 1920s, if not earlier, and Gandhian ideas slowly migrated to the United States, fusing with the domestic protest tradition.
By contrast, the Nation of Islam was born in Detroit in the 1930s. Even a cursory glance at its animating ideas will show it has surprisingly little to do with the global religion of Islam as it has developed in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Perhaps the best example of this is the founding myth of the races that the Nation of Islam taught its members by its mysterious founder, Wallace Fard Muhammad, and his successor Elijah Muhammad. The Nation’s leadership claimed that there had originally been only one race, the black race, which was a noble race of kings and queens that lived in peace and prosperity in Africa. However, a malevolent scientist named Yakub began experiments 6,600 years ago on the Greek island of Patmos. Here he began selectively breeding children so that dark-skinned babies were killed and lighter-skinned children were raised and supported, so that over time a new race of “whites” emerged.
Unlike the noble black race, this group of recessive white people were dishonest, lazy and unreliable, and gradually over time they began sowing the seeds of mistrust and hatred among the rest of the population of the world. They turned out to be a race of “devils”.
Eventually, over time the white race used its malevolent skills to gain control of the planet, and from that position of power set about rewriting the true history of the world, giving themselves the position of heroes and demeaning and enslaving black people. It was therefore necessary for black people to rediscover their true, noble history in order to regain their position of leadership in the world.
Just look at this story for a moment. Is anything familiar about it? A claim that differences rooted in biology produce different characteristics among the races? An argument that one race is noble and born for leadership, while another is dishonest and treacherous?
This is nothing but an inversion of the pseudo-scientific claims made by white people since the nineteenth century about their supposed differences from blacks. It is a foundational American tradition, just turned upside down. It’s as American as apple pie.
So, too, for the Black Panthers rejection of non-violence and the insistence on armed self-defence. The shocking part of images of Black Panthers standing on courtroom steps brandishing automatic weapons is that they are black; we see many such protests, on almost a daily basis, from white Americans defending the Second Amendment. What could be more patriotic than defending the right to bear arms? This is truly a muscular American tradition, not like that Gandhian nonsense being promoted by Reverend King.
I am over-egging the point, of course. There’s no such thing as a perfectly isolated national culture — we are all always borrowing from each other. But the case does show quite how absurd the ideas of “Americanism” and “un-Americanism” can be, to the point that they almost end up the opposite of the truth.