I just returned from a trip to Boston where I had the opportunity to learn more about two influential men, similar in some ways, dissimilar in others. My first stop was the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. I think we all enter places like this with certain preconceptions and expectations. The three things that stood out most in my mind about JFK were “The Camelot Era”, his oft-repeated quote, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”, and his unexpected and shocking murder in Dallas. The range of exhibits gave my son and me a much broader picture of Kennedy, as a man and a president. What I came away with was that he was also a relentless campaigner and ruthless political adversary, an author and war hero, and a consummate Kennedy family member, with all the required wealth, education, and good looks. He was also wary of civil rights protests and often avoided making public statements that could be perceived as too bold or divisive, expertly deflecting reporters with humor, his endless charm, and pithy rejoinders.
My next stop was the Museum of African American History, Boston & Nantucket on Joy Street to hear Malcolm X’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, speak at the African Meeting House. Titled, “Growing Up X: Readings and Reflections with the Daughter of Malcolm X.” Shabazz described her father as one of America’s most influential figures, a natural-born leader. Reading from the children’s book she’s written about her father, she explained that Malcolm Little was raised in a household by parents who were socially and politically active in their community which led to them being plagued by intolerance and a series of tragedies. Malcolm had to learn, at a young age, how to be strong and self-reliant. Eventually, as a young man, he joined with the religious leader Elijah Muhammad to become one of the most powerful and charismatic spokespersons for black self-determination during the 1960s. He ultimately became disillusioned with the Nation of Islam and made a pilgrimage to Mecca where he came to believe that America’s racist society as a whole was what needed to be addressed, rather than the actions of particular whites. Though his voice was silenced much too soon, his daughter is carrying on his legacy through her various writings.
To some JFK may seem like an expensive, polished gemstone to Malcolm X’s diamond-in-the-rough. However, the unexpected juxtaposition of these two men in my mind that Thursday afternoon caused me to realize that, though the words they chose to use and the way they delivered their ideas to the public may have been different, their ideologies and life trajectories were not dissimilar. Both were articulate, thoughtful, and well-read. Both were strong and inspirational role models for young people. Both believed that Americans need to take charge of their own destinies and work towards the greater good of society, rather than simply for their own individual gains. And, both were ultimately assassinated for daring to speak out and trying to change the status quo. Their means of addressing inequality may have been different but the outcomes were the same.