Martin Luther King and Malcolm X rose from markedly different backgrounds to assume leading roles in the civil rights movement, and though each died violently while playing his respective part, neither man fully exited the stage. Both remain to this day celebrated figures in the fight for racial and economic justice.
Their much-publicized differences, most notably violence versus nonviolence, have rendered portraits of the two men as opposing figures, but Dr. Peniel Joseph, in his dual biography “The Sword and Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.,” argues that these contrasts have been taken out of context. The two men eventually grew into alter egos of one another, he asserts, and each transformed the other in important ways as their visions converged. Dr. Joseph recently spoke with Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson about these two iconic African American leaders.
Dr. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, where he serves as founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, and professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. “The Sword and the Shield” is the latest of several books he has written on African American history. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
They Said It Plain, They Said It Loud
Governing: In “The Sword and the Shield,” you suggest that Malcolm X, as a kind of alter ego or a critical cousin of Martin Luther King, was able to push King toward a more strenuous critique of American life. It doesn’t seem that the influence went the other way, with King softening Malcolm X or teaching him the virtues of nonviolence.
Peniel Joseph: King’s political thought and practice went beyond nonviolence, though nonviolence was huge. His was a revolutionary project to end structural violence and racism and inequality against everyone on the planet. It was that big. But no, Malcolm was pushing for radical Black dignity and King was pushing for radical Black citizenship. Malcolm was constantly arguing a case against white America that was rooted in the dehumanization and denigration of Black people. He was the boldest critic of white supremacy, but he also told Black people that their freedom would eventually rest with political self-determination defeating the structures of racism and white supremacy. That’s why he was so interested in Africa and the Middle East.
But King impacted Malcolm when he talked about radical Black citizenship. King said that citizenship was not just ending racial oppression. It was about a universal basic income, decent housing, racial integration in public schools and neighborhoods. It was all-encompassing. King was a big believer in American democracy. You see his real impact on Malcolm with the “Ballot or the Bullet” speech [April 3, 1964], which was him admitting and coming to terms with the need for dignity and citizenship.
The Ballot or the Bullet speech by Malcolm X on April 3, 1964
The Question of Democracy; Or, Questioning Democracy
Peniel Joseph: Malcolm never believed in democratic institutions. He had faith that Black people themselves could somehow transform these institutions. He started to talk about voting rights. He visited Coretta Scott King in Selma, while on his way to visit Dr. King in jail, and he told her that what Dr. King was doing was right. Throughout 1964, he was telling people that he and Dr. King had the same goals of human dignity, just different tactics. So you could see the impact. I argue that as early as 1963, which was Malcolm’s last year in the Nation of Islam, you could see him being drawn to King. Malcolm was an organizer, and even though he called the March on Washington a farce on Washington, he was there. He watched from a hotel room, but he was in and out the whole time. Malcolm appreciated King’s ability to mobilize. He understood that King was not a demagogue. He was trying to listen to King and to see why people were so inspired by him.
With nonviolence versus self-defense, they never agreed, but that’s something that I push back on in the book. People get too focused on that. Malcolm X was never calling for some kind of revolutionary race war against white people. If anything, he argued that white supremacy was so pernicious in the United States that if civil rights bills and voting rights acts were passed, it would bring a race war because whites were so violently opposed to Black economy. That’s not a controversial thing if you look at the recent assault on the U.S. Capitol, or the policy assaults on voting rights going on right now. If you read American history, it’s not a controversial thing to say that prospects of Black voting equality always bring out a violent white response, en masse. Whether it’s Donald Trump or Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan or Andrew Johnson or George Wallace, they all tried to bridle that wild force. But they didn’t invent it.
White House address on Civil Rights by President John F. Kennedy on June 11, 1983
When Everything Closed in on Both Leaders
Governing: Your book leaves the reader with the sense that the assassinations of King and Malcolm X were more anthropological than the actions of any sort of agent.
Peniel Joseph: Absolutely. There is this inexorable feeling that all sides were closing in on both of them. It was a combination of the federal government, local law enforcement in Malcolm’s case, and obviously the Nation of Islam. But the NOI was filled with informants, and so was King’s organization. Our federal government and our police state had informants everywhere. We’re certainly culpable in some way.
The accumulation of deaths really shifted history. How does the 1970s look with the Kennedy brothers alive, with Malcolm X and Medgar Evers alive, with the Panthers not in jail? You have to say that the accumulation of these assassinations changed the course of history. Think about the right wing. How does the country look if Ronald Reagan hadn’t lived past the 1960s? He was a special figure. Chappaquiddick led to Jimmy Carter’s presidency. These things do impact.
King to America: You Are Doing Democracy Wrong
Governing: In the book, you say that Malcolm X considered the program of Martin Luther King to be fundamentally wrong-headed. Blacks should not be asking to join the club. There was no dignity, no Black pride in that approach.
Peniel Joseph: Malcolm said that they were separatists, not segregationists. He said that with segregation, they’re telling you that you can’t be a part of it. With separatism, you’re saying you don’t want to be a part of it. King’s powerful repudiation was that this is a democracy and we have human rights and citizenship rights. Just because they’re doing wrong doesn’t mean we have to double down on that wrong. King brought a lot of light into that, saying it’s not undignified to demand recognition of our humanity. And in a way, that won Malcolm over. That’s why when you look at the press conferences from 1964, Malcolm was saying that white people can be a part of the movement, if they’re sincere. Over time he saw that what most Black people really wanted was equality.
“Malcolm impacts King’s radical critique against white supremacy and racial violence and economic injustice, and King transforms Malcolm’s understanding of citizenship and the need for Black citizenship.”
Dr. Peniel Joseph, 2021
Violence and Poverty Are Not Inevitable
Governing: Is it fair to say that a Malcolm X critique of Martin Luther King would say, first of all, that there’s going to have to be some violence? And secondly, that by sitting with Johnson and Kennedy, King is too willing to accommodate in order to be part of the establishment?
Peniel Joseph: That’s where the critique starts, but it evolves. By the time Malcolm was doing “Ballot or the Bullet” and getting deeper into statesmanship, he saw the need for meetings. You have to meet with white folks, Black folks, Asian folks, Latinx folks. That’s the world. Malcolm became a better diplomat as he grew older. King was a mainstream diplomat when he was younger, but he lost his diplomatic privilege when he started to talk about United States as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.
Governing: And that poverty was not finally race dependent.
Peniel Joseph: It’s not that poverty and race are inextricably combined with violence. That’s why he said it’s militarism. Racism and materialism. He also had a critique of capitalism, but King was like a social Democrat. He wanted democracy, but he wanted the bigger floor that other people have. Everyone’s never going to live in the same house on the same block, but what is the floor for people who are down and out in terms of health care, basic income, all these things that are basic, elementary human rights. JFK, in his civil rights speech on June 11, 1963, said, “Look, some of these things are elementary. Negros should be able to go to restaurants and parks.” JFK, one of our country’s biggest aristocrats, the American version of royalty, thought it was elementary that people be able to go eat somewhere. He was exasperated at the fact that he had to even say that.
King went deeper by saying, “Look, militarism, racism, materialism, these are the triple evils facing humanity.” Malcolm would have said that violence was going to happen, though not necessarily self-defensive violence. Malcolm was criticizing the state-sanctioned violence that was normalized. We still normalize it, with police brutality but also with poverty. Demographically, we know empirically that Black folks, all poor folks but disproportionately Black and brown, live next to the most environmentally toxic places in the United States. This has been for decades. That’s where race and class are inextricably linked. King understood that, so he’s not getting into a Marxist critique where it’s class and not race, nor is he getting into some nationalist critique where it’s race and not class. Race and class are inextricably linked, along with gender. Race, class and gender.
MLK and Malcolm X Were Each Other’s Alter Egos
It’s interesting to me King and Malcolm do become each other’s alter egos. Malcolm impacts King’s radical critique against white supremacy and racial violence and economic injustice, and King transforms Malcolm’s understanding of citizenship and the need for Black citizenship. The reason Malcolm was so receptive was not because he believed in American democracy, but because he believed in Black people. Black people’s belief in American democracy swayed him. Some people get to democracy that way.
If you’re a Black, it’s hard to get to the point where you fundamentally believe in democracy. One of the reasons King did and Malcolm didn’t was their class status. King was coming from an upper-middle-class, African American Georgian family. When Malcolm first went to jail, King was a sophomore at Morehouse. By the time Malcolm left jail, King had managed to get not only a bachelor’s degree, but also his seminary degree at Crozer. When Malcolm stepped out of prison on Aug. 7, 1952, King had finished the first year of a Ph.D. program. You would never have thought that those two humans would ever meet or be on the same stage, unless one’s going to attack the other.
Is America Closer to King’s Dream?
Governing: The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were not stillborn, but they didn’t accomplish what they were intended to accomplish. And Malcolm said that the Civil Rights Bill wasn’t going to accomplish it, either. You can’t enforce these things. For all we love about King, was Malcolm more right about America?
Peniel Joseph: They were both right. King would say that these amendments provided a context for the civil rights struggle, a context to transform American democracy and be true to what the founders put on paper. King saw that glass as half full and Malcolm saw it as half empty, but even seeing it as half empty, it was a provocation for people to do something to change the status quo.
Governing: Martin Luther King dreamed that his own children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Are we closer in 2021 than we were in 1963?
Peniel Joseph: Dr. King understood that we were going to see difference. He just didn’t want us to attach negativity to difference. (01:02:55): As to whether we’re closer, it depends on where one looks. When King was around, we probably couldn’t have dreamed of having a two-term Black president, of Oprah Winfrey, of the Black cultural wealth, political success, economic success. In certain siloed ways, we are closer. But collectively, when you look at racial outcomes and disparities, we’re not there. This movement for racial and economic justice is ongoing.
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “The Future In Context.”