Although Martin Luther King Jr. was certainly deserving of a federal holiday, it had the effect of quieting the national perception of his radicalism. Peniel Joseph’s double-biography of Malcolm X and Dr. King is all the more important, then, because in a concise, readable, and well-argued fashion, it makes the case both that King was far more radical than he is given credit, and this because the false juxtaposition of Malcolm and Martin itself needs repair.
Let’s start with the problems with the national holiday itself. Peniel states the truth eloquently in his epilogue.
The holiday did more than simply recognize King’s individual accomplishments. It celebrated the civil rights movement’s successful inclusion of racial justice and human rights as fundamental principals of American democracy. But Martin Luther King Jr. Day allowed America to bask in his dream, even as the nation stood further from fulfilling its mandate. King would not recognize himself in the uncomplicated, largely timid figure that much of the nation and the world celebrate today. The radical King, who gathered an army of the poor to descend upon the nation’s capitol in defiance of critics, is airbrushed from history. The risk-taking King, who defied a sitting president to protest war, is missing from our popular memory. The revolutionary King, who marched shoulder to shoulder with garbage workers, locked arms with Black Power militants, and lives in Chicago ghettos in an effort to stimulate social change, is forgotten. The King who proclaimed that America’s greatness remained ‘the right to protest for right’ has all but vanished, replaced by generic platitudes about freedom and justice (308-309)
What Peniel successfully argues over the course of his book is remarkable: that King moved toward many of these most radical commitments not only because of his love of black people and desire for full citizenship for Black Americans, but also because Malcolm X’s long-term and itself developing approach to radical action changed King himself.
Some ways of comparing Malcolm and Martin remain salient. Malcolm especially early in his approach welcomed and emphasized self-defense, and sought revolution more quickly, whereas Martin worked more patiently with those in power, and committed early and consistently to non-violence resistance.
What such an analysis overlooks, however, is the radical and powerful nature of collective non-violence, the dramatic and forceful change that can occur in and through it. Similarly, although Malcolm was more open to Black Power and forceful defense, he was also himself a gently and open listener, intellectually interested throughout his life, so that his approach changed over time.
This means that although these two great men danced around one another for most of their all-to-brief careers, they continued to move toward one another, because they both advocated for black dignity and black citizenship. They both unapologetically loved black people.
I found some of the late chapters in the book the most enlightening. I’ll confess that as a white Lutheran pastor from Iowa, I have known more of Dr. King than Malcolm X, and spent more time reading about him (including most magisterially Taylor Branch’s America In the King Years).
Peniel Joseph’s book woke me up to greater interest in reading Malcolm X. I intend to read his autobiography soon.
So of course, the chapters on Malcolm taught me more about him and the Nation of Islam than I had known previously. But it was the late chapters on the ways Malcolm X traveled abroad, then returned with a more global perspective, and ultimately influenced King’s own approach, that captivated me in particular.
There’s a moment in King’s career, about the time he shifts to seeing Johnson as his political opponent rather than ally (and this largely around Vietnam, though also on poverty and environment and labor), when he really enters terrain that is essentially shared terrain between the two men.
These two traveled all over the world, they impacted not just American civil rights, but rather the whole of our life on the planet, in ways that are sorely missed by their early deaths.
One way to summarize King’s late shift is to say, somewhat radically but also very accurately, that The Role of the Behavioral Scientist In the Civil Rights Movement is a much more important speech than the I Have a Dream speech.
Read it. You’ll see why.
In September, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr., was only 38-years-old but already president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize when he took the podium at APA’s Annual Convention in Washington, D.C. 7 months later he was dead. His speech before the APA are made all the more prescient precisely so.
As we prepare for Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2021, I encourage everyone to read Peniel Joseph’s The Sword and the Shield. Let’s reclaim the day in the spirit of the radicalism of the real MLK Jr., influenced as he was by the great Malcolm X.