Across the water, in a modest office on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, there hangs a mesmerizing picture of two 20th century martyrs shaking hands and smiling past one another.
The tall man with the square jaw and the shorter, heavier man would both be murdered before they could unite in likely joint action.
El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, popularly known as Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., now coexist, in spirit, in an environment that epitomizes what their struggle was about: the Malcolm X Cultural Education Center, 2208 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., in Southeast Washington.
Barely a year old, the center was started by three self-described "disillusioned radicals" who felt that all they had believed in during the revolutionary '60s, as Black Panthers and student radicals, had been smashed and dismembered by raids, bombs, conspiracies, and bullets.
"We had to preserve something and keep it alive," said Charles Stephenson. "Malcolm's spirit and Dr. King's teachings are what we chose to cling to and perpetuate."
Stephenson and fellow organizers Malik Edwards and Sherry L. Brown now are preparing for one of the city's most popular events -- the Big Celebration -- the 10th annual Malcolm X Day to be held this Sunday at Anacostia Park from noon until 8 p.m.
Unlike other rallies in the city, this event deliberately highlights the personality of Southeast Washington: its schools, its community organizations, its businesses, its neighborhoods. It's a family affair. All others welcome. To practice what Malcom X preached. Unity. Rhetoric is kept to rock-bottom minimum. Commercial exploitation nil. Elbow-rubbing, idea-swapping and impromptu workshops complement the music and the message.
"When we honor Malcolm, we honor ourselves," said Malik Edwards. "On this day we declare peace."
The Malcolm X Cultural Educational Center, staffed without salary by three men who hold full-time jobs elsewhere, digs deep into the community and strikes pay dirt.
"Dealing with youth is the toughest task of all," Stephenson says. "Young blacks aren't afraid of anything. Not their parents. Not the police. Nobody.The fear is gone. Their minds are fresh, purged -- with this you build."
Stephenson, an aide to Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.) and Brown, a program development consultant, appear at school forums with materials on the life of Malcolm and King and continually are amazed, according to Brown, at the large percentage of high school students who have read books on Malcolm's life. "At a recent assembly at Anacostia High School, 94 percent of those in attendance, by a show of hands, had read something about Malcolm's life outside of a school textbook," he said.
Malcolm lived. He lived as young Malcolm Little, son of an activist preacher brutally murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. He lived as Big Red, the biggest and baddest pimp and dope pusher Harlem has ever seen. Busted, he also lived as Big Red, convict.
As a high school student in Michigan, his smooth articulation and quick mind won favor with his white instructors until the day he told his faculty adviser he wanted to be a lawyer. Malcolm was told, according to Alex Haley's "Autobiography of Malcolm X," that "this is not a realistic goal for a nigger." He became withdrawn, quiet. Sent to live with his half-sister in Boston, Malcolm soon ran away to Harlem. Became Big Red. Then a convict. Then the change.
He became a member of the Nation of Islam in the slams. After his release, Elijah Muhammad's chief minister. Spokesman for the Black Muslims. Malcolm's words hit big. In the beginning, he called whites "devils" and "snakes"; he called blacks "men." He reviled racism and its institutions and preached black self-help -- "We've got to do for our own, help our own." Malcolm believed black people had an "image problem" - that many, too many, considered themselves inferior because they had been programmed to do so by the dominant white society. He verbally attacked, attacked and attacked again those he considered responsible for attitudes designed to "take away our black manhood." He was relentless, letting the chips fall where they may.
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Elijah Muhammad ordered all ministers to refrain from comment. Malcolm obeyed -- in his speeches. But he never ducked a question. When asked to comment on the murder of the president at a rally question-and-answer session, he said later he meant to say this: "This country has allowed white people to kill and brutalize those they don't like. The assassination of Kennedy is a result of that way of thinking. The chickens came home to roost; that's all there is to it."
But, at the time of his response at the rally, he was quoted as saying: "Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they've always made me glad." Malcolm was suspended from the Black Muslims and never re-instated.
In his next phase, as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, he organized the Organization of Afro-American Unity, became an internationalist and stopped calling whites "devils". He also took the first step toward an ideological accommodation still staggering in its implications: he began reaching out to Martin Luther King Jr. In 1964, Malcolm spoke at a rally to raise funds for a King-supported march to Montgomery. King was then jailed at Selma. While with the Muslims, Malcolm hotly differed with King over the Atlanta minister's twin ideals of integration and non-violence, but, on his own, he spoke well of King's tactics.
On a radio talk show he said to an antagonistic white panelist: "You should put forth more effort to protect him (King) . . . . to protect the people who go along with him and display this love and this patience. If you would do more for these people and spend some of your time trying to help these people instead of trying to attack me, probably this country would be a much better place to live." Just a few days after this broadcast, in that week of February 1965, Malcolm was shot dead. Three years later -- King. Bang.
"They were coming together to join forces, it was only a matter of time," Edwards comments now.
"We celebrate Malcolm and King's spirit and teachings every day over here," said Brown. "Despite our jobs, we make the time to devote to drug counseling, voter registration, and in alliance with other organizations, community education projects, and health care."
Edwards is "particularly proud of (the center's) work in the community's schools, where we keep the spirit of Malcolm alive by talking about his strengths and values.
"The students know Malcolm as Big Red," continued Edwards, "they know he rejected the fantasy lifestyle of dope and sex, reeducated himself, and worked with his people for his people."
The holding of Malcolm X Day in Southeast is of special significance to Edwards. "The Southeast community is the most underdeveloped and neglected part of Washington," he notes.
"Everybody picks on us -- from Metro and its discriminatory fares to Janet Cooke and her 'Jimmy' to revolutionary groups who come here to preach destruction to our young people -- but we're interested in life over here, not death; history and tradition, not lies."
The Malcolm X Cultural Education Center has received two special citations -- both last year and this -- from the D.C. City Council honoring its "involvement in community education, health care, voter registration, housing, child care and family growth."
The center has been paying its rent and utility bills with emergency grants from the United Black Fund, where Edwards is in public relations. The rent is now twice overdue. All other incidentals are hustled up by the staff, including change from their own pockets. Edwards, Stephenson, and Brown, all in their early thirties, are also all family men -- parents, who see their investment of time, according to Edwards, as "an investment in our children's future and our community's future." Our mothers, he added, are "happy at the way we turned out."
Last year, 20,000 people turned up to celebrate the center-sponsored Malcolm X Day. Every year it gets bigger and bigger. As does, apparently, Big Red's reputation. And his legacy.