Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are frequently seen as opposing forces in the struggle for civil rights and against white supremacy; King is often portrayed as a nonviolent insider, while Malcolm X is characterized as a by-any-means-necessary political renegade. But author and Black Power scholar Peniel Joseph says the truth is more nuanced.
“I’ve always been fascinated by Malcolm X and Dr. King … and dissatisfied in how they’re usually portrayed — both in books and in popular culture,” Joseph says.
In his book, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph braids together the lives of the two civil rights leaders. He says that King and Malcolm X had “convergent visions” for Black America — but their strategies for how to reach the goal was informed by their different upbringings.
“Malcolm X is really scarred by racial trauma at a very early age,” Joseph says. “King, in contrast, has a very gilded childhood, and he’s the son of an upper-middle-class, African-American family, prosperous family that runs one of the most important churches in Black Atlanta.”
Joseph says that, over time, each man became the other’s “alter ego.” Malcolm X, he says, “injects a political radicalism on the national scene that absolutely makes Dr. King and his movement much more palatable to mainstream Americans.”
Now, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Joseph says that King and Malcolm X’s visions have converged: “What’s really extraordinary is that the Black Lives Matter protesters really are protesting for radical Black dignity and citizenship and see that you need both. So Malcolm and Martin are the revolutionary sides of the same coin, and really the BLM movement has amplified that.”
On what Malcolm X meant by racial separatism
This idea of separatism is really interesting. The deeper I investigated Malcolm X, the more I understood what he meant and what the Nation of Islam meant by racial separatism. It wasn’t segregation. It was separatism, they argued, and Malcolm does this in a series of debates against Bayard Rustin, against Jim Farmer, against James Baldwin, Louis Lomax. He says that racial separatism is required because white people do not want Black people to be citizens and have dignity. And if they did, you wouldn’t have to protest and experience police violence and police brutality: small children trying to integrate Little Rock High School, young people trying to integrate lunch counters, and they’re arrested and brutalized, sometimes people were killed, of course. So what’s interesting about this idea of separatism, Malcolm argues separatism is Black people having enough self-love and enough confidence in themselves to organize and build parallel institutions. Because America was so infected with the disease of racism, they could never racially integrate into American democracy.
On Malcolm X’s vision of “by any means necessary” protest
Malcolm is making the argument that, one, Black people have the right to self-defense and to defend themselves against police brutality. It’s really striking when you follow Malcolm X in the 1950s and ’60s, the number of court appearances he’s making, whether it’s in Buffalo, N.Y., or Los Angeles or Rochester, N.Y., where members of the Nation of Islam have been brutalized [and], at times, killed by police violence. So Malcolm is arguing that, one, Black people have a right to defend themselves. Second part of Malcolm’s argument — because he travels to the Middle East by 1959, travels for 25 weeks overseas in 1964 — is that because there [are] anti-colonial revolutions raging across Africa and the Third World in the context of the 1950s and ’60s, he makes the argument that the Black revolution in the United States is only going to be a true revolution once Black people start utilizing self-defense to end the racial terror they’re experiencing both in the 1950s and ’60s, but historically. And one of the reasons Malcolm makes that argument, obviously, is because his father and his family had experienced that racial terror.
On King’s policy of non-violent protest v. self defense
One thing that’s important to know is that when we think about nonviolence versus self-defense, it’s very, very complex, because even though Martin Luther King Jr. is America’s apostle and a follower of Gandhi and believes in nonviolence, there are always people around King who are trying to protect him and in demonstrations, who actually are armed, they’re not armed in the same way that, say, the Black Panthers would arm themselves later, but they’re armed to actually protect and defend peaceful civil rights activists from racial terror. And of course, King famously had had armed guards around him in Montgomery, Ala., after his home was firebombed during the bus boycott of 1955 to ’56. And it’s Bayard Rustin who famously told him he couldn’t have those armed guards if he wanted to live out the practice of nonviolence.
So King usually does not have his own people being armed. But when he’s in the Deep South, there are civil rights activists who actually are armed and at times protecting him. They’re not necessarily connected to his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but the movement always had people who were trying to protect peaceful demonstrators against racial terror.
On King’s response to Malcolm X’s argument against non-violent civil disobedience
King has several responses: One is that nonviolence is both a moral and political strategy. So the morality and the religious argument is that Black people could not succumb to enemy politics. And this idea that when we think about white racism, we would become as bad as the people who are oppressing us. So he pushes back against that. Politically, he says, well, then there aren’t enough Black people, even if they arm themselves to win some kind of armed conflict and struggle. And then finally, he says and there’s a great speech in 1963 in Los Angeles where he doesn’t mention Malcolm X, but he’s speaking out against Malcolm X in terms of what’s happening in Birmingham. And Malcolm has called him an Uncle Tom and all kinds of names. He says that non-violence is the weapon of strength. It’s the weapon of people who are powerful and courageous and brave and heroic and disciplined. It’s not the weapon of the weak, because we’re going to use this non-violent strategy to actually transform the United States of America against its own will. …
I say Malcolm is Black America’s prosecuting attorney. He’s prosecuting white America for a series of crimes against Black humanity that date back to racial slavery. Dr. King is Black America’s defense attorney — but he’s very interesting: He defends both sides of the color line. He defends Black people to white people and tells white people that Black people don’t want Black supremacy. They don’t want reverse racism. They don’t want revenge for racial slavery and Jim Crow segregation. They just want to be included in the body politic and have citizenship. But he also defends white people to Black people. He’s constantly telling — especially as the movement gets further radicalized — Black people that white people are good people, that white people, we can redeem the souls of the nation. And we have white allies who have fought and struggled and died with us to achieve Black citizenship. So it’s very interesting, the roles they both play. But over time, after Malcolm’s assassination, one of the biggest ironies and transformations is that King becomes Black America’s prosecuting attorney.
On how Malcolm X and King’s visions merged
They start to merge, especially in the aftermath of Malcolm’s assassination on Feb. 21, 1965. And in a way, when we think about King, right after Malcolm’s assassination, King has what he later calls one of those “mountaintop moments.” And he always says there are these mountaintop moments, but then you have to go back to the valley. And that mountaintop moment is going to be the Selma to Montgomery march, even though initially, when we think about March 7, 1965 — Bloody Sunday — demonstrators, including the late Congressman John Lewis, are battered by Alabama state troopers, non-violent demonstrators, peaceful demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
But by March 15, LBJ, the president, is going to say these protesters are right and they are part of a long pantheon of American heroes dating back to the revolution. And then March 21 to the 25, the Selma to Montgomery demonstration is going to attract 30,000 Americans — including white allies, Jewish allies like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — to King and the movement. So King is going to make his last, fully nationally televised speech on March 25, 1965, where he talks about American democracy, racial justice, but the long road ahead. By that August, Aug. 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act has passed. So these are real high points.
But then five days after the Voting Rights Act is passed, Watts, Los Angeles explodes in really the largest civil disturbance in American history up until that point. And when we think about after Watts, that’s where King and Malcolm start to converge, because Malcolm had criticized the March on Washington as the “farce on Washington,” because he said that King and the movement should have paralyzed Washington, D.C., and forced a reckoning about race in America. And they didn’t do that. By 1965, King says that in this essay, “Beyond the Los Angeles Riots,” that what he’s going to start doing is use non-violent civil disobedience as a peaceful sword that paralyzes cities to produce justice that goes beyond civil rights and voting rights acts.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.