Malcolm X And MLK

Priscillaville, Virginia

August 29, 2020

An important book. Especially for those of us who were too young to understand the activities of Malcolm X and MLK in the 1960s. The premise of the book is that the two men initially were pursuing different goals using different strategies but that over time their goals and to a degree their strategies converged.

For me, this book is essential reading if you are trying to get your head around the racial and social issues of today. You’ll take away an understanding of what these men stood for, what they accomplished and perhaps most importantly, their unfinished business - that we still struggle with today.

Here are some of my thoughts and takeaways:

  1. It is easy to dismiss Malcolm X as a radical, an extremist. But perhaps we need extremists to shake us out of our comfort zones?

  2. I found it interesting to view southern racism as different from northern racism. In the south, Jim Crow was just an extension of how blacks had always been treated. Northern racism is tied to the Great Migration. As blacks moved into northern cities, they were funneled into “black areas” which evolved into ghettos. In many cities, the police were the agents who kept the blacks in the ghettos. I appreciate that some will dispute that history. But it seems like a compelling narrative to me.

  3. History is always murky to when I peal away the superficial understanding that I learned (or didn't learn) in school. I had no idea that there were many black leaders and organizations with different agendas in the 1960s. My previous understanding was that MLK represented all blacks. I was wrong.

  4. I learned that while MLK’s initial focus was on “black citizenship” over time he expanded his vision to include poverty, independent of race.

  5. I couldn’t help but conclude that we haven’t made much progress on civil rights and poverty since the 1960s. I am looking for a book (books) that addresses that topic if anyone has any recommendations.

  6. The FBI had it in for MLK. Wiretaps, leaking damaging material to the press.

  7. I shouldn’t be surprised, but the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) were not overly popular. Implementation of them was impeded by the unrest in the country regarding the Vietnam War. It had not occurred to me that the war took up so much of our bandwidth.

  8. This book is less a biography than it is a discussion of the evolution of the two men’s thinking on the issues they fought for. However, you do get a sense for the intellect and drive of both men. And their unparalleled oratory skills.

  9. I wonder how history would be different if both men had lived longer lives. There is no one who has come close to taking their place -- maybe Jesse Jackson for a while?

Here is a review of the book from the WSJ that I found described the book much better than I could:

Fool. Chump. Traitor. False shepherd. Rev. Dr. Chickenwing. Uncle Tom. These are a few of the ways that Malcolm X described Martin Luther King Jr.

King spoke more diplomatically about Malcolm, but not flatteringly, calling the Nation of Islam a “hate group” for its insistence on black separatism and supremacy.

They were the yin and yang of an American revolution, the two most stirring and lasting voices of the civil-rights battle of the 1950s and ’60s. We remember King the pacifist in contrast to Malcolm the provocateur; the man with the dream and the man who decried the black American nightmare. Yet, as Peniel E. Joseph argues in his incisive, smartly written new book, “The Sword and the Shield,” history has turned both men into caricatures. We’ve lost sight of King’s true radicalism. We’ve lost sight of Malcolm’s more moderate approach to black nationalism that emerged after his break with the Nation of Islam. And, in Mr. Joseph’s view, we’ve lost sight of how each man shaped the other.

King grew so radical and Malcolm mellowed so much, James Baldwin wrote, that “by the time each met his death there was practically no difference between them.” Plenty of differences remained between the men, but Baldwin nevertheless captured an essential truth. King and Malcolm each found it useful to cast the other in the role of adversary, and yet the more they struggled against institutionalized racism and economic inequality, the more they found commonality in their political goals. Mr. Joseph, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, weaves their stories fluidly and with vivid detail, helping to strip away the high gloss of mythology.

King, born in 1929 in Atlanta, was influenced deeply by the black Southern Baptist church. His father, maternal grandfather, uncle and brother all were preachers. His approach to fighting segregation grew from his experience in the church as well as his extensive philosophical and theological training. Malcolm Little, born in 1925 in Omaha, Neb., was also the son of a Baptist preacher, an itinerant one who organized for Marcus Garvey’s black-nationalist movement. While imprisoned for burglary between 1946 and 1952, Malcolm discovered the Nation of Islam, which urged black Americans to reject racial integration and prepare for the fast-approaching day when Allah would destroy white society.

King launched his career as a minister at a church in Montgomery, Ala., as Malcolm Little dropped his so-called slave name and became Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam’s most exciting young minister. At the time, decolonization was reshaping Africa and Asia. African-Americans were moving to cities, whites to the suburbs. Brown v. Board of Education outlawed legal segregation in public education and sparked new waves of civil disobedience, including a bus boycott in Montgomery that turned King, at age 27, into the movement’s most dynamic figure and, thanks to television, the most famous activist of his time.

As each man gained fame, he found it useful to attack the other. King built his movement on Christian principles, advocating nonviolence, urging his followers to love their enemies. He embraced pacifism, but there was nothing passive about his work. He endured bombings, beatings and frequent arrests. In fact, he counted on violent attacks by police and sheriffs to win the sympathy and support of white Americans for his cause. Invoking Gandhi and Jesus, he seized the moral high ground and attained the kind of influence usually associated with leaders of state.

Malcolm, for most of his public career, mocked that approach. Why should black Americans love the people who had enslaved, suppressed and lynched them? Why negotiate with an opponent who insists on your fundamental inferiority? What’s to be gained for the lamb by expressing love for the lion while being devoured? At times, especially in the first half of his book, Mr. Joseph works hard to portray King and Malcolm as equally important figures in the quest for a “moral and political reckoning,” as he puts it, “with America’s long history of racial and economic injustice.” He describes King as a defense attorney and Malcolm as a prosecutor, suggesting they played equally necessary roles. But in those early chapters it’s King notching one victory after another, profoundly changing American life and law, while Malcolm inspires audiences with his defiance and sharp words but searches for the most effective use of his skills.

The men met only once, on March 26, 1964. While King held a press conference at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., Malcolm entered the room and quietly took a seat. Afterward, they met in a corridor, shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. “Now you’re going to get investigated,” Malcolm joked with King as photographers snapped pictures. Of course, both men had long been under investigation by the FBI, but the comment nevertheless counted as a kind of bonding between two beleaguered warriors.

In the days that followed, the men continued to throw jabs, but they increasingly showed mutual respect. They nearly met again in 1965 in Selma, where Malcolm asked Coretta Scott King to pass along a message to her husband: “I want him to know that I didn’t come to make his job more difficult,” Malcolm said. “I thought that if the white people understood what the alternative was that they would be willing to listen to Dr. King.”

It was a comment that captured both men’s strengths and weaknesses. Malcolm inspired fear in the white community and courage in the black community, while King worked with both sides and looked for concrete results that seemed to grow more elusive.

Less than three weeks after his trip to Selma, Malcolm was assassinated while speaking to an audience in Harlem. In death he became “the patron saint of black radicalism,” Mr. Joseph writes. But his greatest legacy, the author argues, may have been his impact on King.

After helping to win passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, King watched as riots exploded in black urban areas, fulfilling one of Malcolm’s prophecies and ripping apart the nonviolent civil-rights movement. King still preached nonviolence, but his approach became more radical, and he loudly insisted that voting rights and desegregation were no longer sufficient. “What both Martin and Malcolm began to see,” Baldwin wrote, “was that the nature of the American hoax had to be revealed—not only to save black people but in order to change the world in which everyone, after all, has a right to live.”

King began to call for massive civil disobedience in the service of a widespread revolution, one that would reshape American democracy and inspire ordinary citizens around the world to fight for the poor and racially oppressed. He ruptured his relationship with President Lyndon Johnson by calling for an end to the Vietnam War before the war became overwhelmingly unpopular. King’s advisers warned him not to take such a radical step, not to lose focus and not to stray from the path that had led to his past successes, but he wouldn’t listen. His journey had begun with a modest attempt to end segregation on Montgomery’s buses. As his fame and power grew, he argued that justice would not be done until everyone was assured integrated schools, decent housing, safe neighborhoods, health care, jobs and a living wage. He staked everything on his hope for a better world until he found himself united with Malcolm X by one last thing: a bullet.

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