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Jewish World Review Jan. 29, 1999/12 Shevat, 5759

Larry Elder

Larry Elder

A Malcolm X postage stamp? What about George Wallace?

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) FORMER ALABAMA GOVERNOR and segregationist George Wallace on a postage stamp?

You laugh. The post office's criteria for honoring individuals, however, provides little guidance. The stamps should "feature American or American-related subjects" and display "only events and themes of widespread national appeal and significance ... "

But Wallace? Imagine the battalion of protesters -- the civil rights establishment, newspaper editorial and op-ed writers, politicians, cable TV pundits -- all making the Million Man March look like a tailgate party.

Yet last week, with virtually no controversy, the post office issued a stamp commemorating the life of activist Malcolm X. In its bio on Malcolm X, the Postal Service said that Malcolm X renounced the segregationist ideology of the Nation of Islam, forming, before his death, a new organization dedicated to togetherness and brotherhood.

As a member of the Nation of Islam, the firebrand orator preached anti-Semitism and called the white man "devil." And after the November 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X cruelly described the murder as a case of "the chickens coming home to roost." In the Spike Lee bio-pic, "Malcolm X," a white woman approached the minister and asked what she, as a white person, could do to improve race relations. Malcolm X's ice-cold response, "Nothing."

Later, Malcolm X visited the holy city of Mecca, where he saw people of different colors and nationalities worshipping together. He renounced the racist ideology of the National of Islam and in doing so knowingly signed his own death warrant. Within a matter of months, members of the Nation of Islam assassinated him in front of his family.

Shortly before his death, Malcolm thought about the advice given to the young white woman by the pre-Mecca Malcolm X, "Well, I've lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent, I saw white students helping black people.
Malcolm X
Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a Muslim that I'm sorry for now. I was a zombie then -- like all Muslims -- I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man's entitled to make a fool of himself if he's ready to pay the cost. It cost me 12 years."

This ex-con and former bigot matured. His repudiation of bigotry and willingness to die as a result certainly deserve praise. But does Malcolm's courageous born-again humanism warrant his likeness on a postage stamp?

Irv Rubin, the chairman of the Jewish Defense League, argues that Adolf Hitler would never get a stamp, no matter how loudly and sincerely he repudiated anti-Semitism and expressed remorse. While no Hitler, Malcolm X, Rubin argues, did great damage. His charisma attracted followers to a religious sect that preached hatred. This partly explains why a recent poll found anti-Semitism among blacks three times higher than among non-blacks. Rubin makes a point. Should the post office honor a man who practiced bigotry, no matter how completely he later rejects it?

This brings us back to George Wallace. During the civil rights struggle, Gov. Wallace famously thundered, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Wallace later took a would-be assassin's bullet, leaving him paralyzed.

Older, wiser and chastened by the attempt on his life, Wallace rejected his blacks-are-inferior separatist philosophy. Addressing a group of black clergymen, Wallace asked for forgiveness, "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 governor to office, but this time, he received black support and made several black appointments. Does the New Wallace wipe the slate clean enough to get a stamp?

The damage Wallace did through actions and rhetoric was profound. He had a lot of making up to do and, despite the assassination attempt, lived long enough to undo some of it. As for Malcolm X's impact, former civil rights lawyer and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall dismissed him, "All he ever did was talk." And given the second-class citizenship of blacks, Malcolm X's hostility toward whites was more defensible than Wallace's hostility toward blacks. Still, both leaders shed the skin of hatred. <>P> But unlike Malcolm X, Wallace lived long enough to demonstrate his contrition by word and deed. Arguably, this makes Wallace a worthier candidate for a stamp than Malcolm X.

Malcolm was a great man. But as he pointed out, his earlier foolishness cost him. Perhaps it should have cost him his stamp. But in any event, we forgave Malcolm. His stamp celebrates his odyssey from hater to humanist.

Tell me, do we forgive George Wallace?

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©1998, Laurence A. Elder