When Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X met
Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X met only once, a chance encounter at the US Capitol on March 26, 1964. The two men were at the Capitol to listen to a debate over what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a measure that banned discrimination in employment, mandated equal access to most public facilities, and had the potential to be the most consequential piece of federal legislation on behalf of equality for African Americans since the Reconstruction era nearly a century earlier.
There wasn’t much substance to their meeting. “Well, Malcolm, good to see you,” King said. “Good to see you,” Malcolm responded. There may have been some additional light chitchat, but not much more. Fortunately, photographers were present, and we are the beneficiaries of several iconic photos of the encounter.
That meeting at the Capitol constitutes the starting point for Peniel Joseph’s enthralling The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, a work that has some of the indicia of a dual biography, albeit highly condensed. But Joseph, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has written prolifically on modern African American history, places his emphasis on the two men’s intellectual journeys. Drawing heavily from their speeches, writings and public debates, Joseph challenges the conventional view of the two men as polar opposites who represented competing visions of full equality for African Americans. The conventional view misses the nuances and evolution of both men’s thinking, Joseph argues, obscuring the ways their politics and activism came to overlap. Each plainly influenced the other. “Over time, each persuaded the other to become more like himself.”
My final stages of this review on the convergence of the two men’s thinking coincided with the trial of Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd last May, along with the recent killing of still another black man, Daunte Wright, in the same Minneapolis metropolitan area. Watching and reading about events in Minneapolis, I couldn’t help concluding that the three familiar words “Black Lives Matter” – the movement that led demonstrations across the country and the world last year to protest the Floyd killing — also neatly encapsulate the commonalities in thinking that Joseph identifies in The Sword and the Shield.
In March 1964, King was considered the “single most influential civil rights leader in the nation,” Joseph writes, whereas Malcolm, an outlier in the mainstream civil rights movement, was “perhaps the most vocal critic of white supremacy ever produced by black America.” The two men shared extraordinary rhetorical and organizational skills. Each was a charismatic leader and deep thinker who articulated in galvanizing terms his vision of full equality for African Americans. But these visions sometimes appeared to be not just polar opposites but mutually exclusive.
In the conventional view of the time, King, the Southern Baptist preacher with a Ph.D. in theology, deserved mainstream America’s support as the civil rights leader who sought integration of African Americans into the larger white society, and unfailingly advocated non-violence as the most effective means to that end. White liberals held King in high esteem for his almost religious belief in the potential of the American political system to close the gap between its lofty democratic rhetoric and the reality of pervasive racial segregation, discrimination and second-class citizenship, a belief Malcolm considered naïve.
A high school dropout who had served time in jail, Malcolm became the most visible spokesman for the Nation of Islam (NOI), an idiosyncratic American religious organization that preached black empowerment and racial segregation. Often termed a “black nationalist,” Malcolm found the key to full equality in political and economic empowerment of African American communities. He considered racial integration a fool’s errand and left open the possibility of violence as a means of defending against white inflicted violence. He seemed to embrace some form of racial separation as the most effective means to achieve full equality and improve the lives of black Americans – a position that the media found to be ironically similar to that of the hard-core racial segregationists with whom both he and King were battling.
But Joseph demonstrates that Malcolm was moving in King’s direction at the time of their March 1964 encounter. Coming off a bitter fallout with the NOI and its leader, Elijah Muhammad, he had cut his ties with the organization just months before the encounter. He had traveled to Washington to demonstrate his support for the civil rights legislation under consideration. Thinking he could make a contribution to the mainstream civil rights movement, Malcolm sought an alliance with King and his allies. Although that alliance never materialized, King began to embrace positions identified with Malcolm after the latter’s assassination less than 11 months later, stressing in particular that economic justice needed to be a component of full equality for African Americans. King also became an outspoken opponent of American involvement in the war in Vietnam, of which Malcolm long been had critical.
Singular events had thrust both men onto the national stage. King rose to prominence as a newly-ordained minister who at age 26 became the most audible voice of the 1955-56 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, after Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white person. Malcolm’s rise to fame came in 1959 through a nationally televised 5-part CBS documentary on the NOI, “The Hate that Hate Produced”, hosted by then little-known Mike Wallace. The documentary was an immediate sensation. It was a one-sided indictment of the NOI, Joseph indicates, intended to scare and outrage whites. But it made Malcolm and his NOI boss Elijah Muhammad heroes within black communities across the country. King seemed to buy into the documentary’s theme, describing the NOI as an organization dedicated to “black supremacy,” which he considered “as bad as white supremacy.”
But even at this time, each man had connected his US-based activism to anti-colonial movements that were altering the face of Africa and Asia. Both recognized that the systemic nature of racial oppression “transcended boundaries of nation-states.” Malcolm made his first trip abroad in 1959, to Egypt and Nigeria. The trip helped him “internationalize black political radicalism,” by linking domestic black politics to the “larger world of anti-colonial and Third World liberation movements,” as Joseph puts it. King, whose philosophy of non-violence owed much to Mahatma Gandhi, visited India in 1959, characterizing himself as a “‘pilgrim’ coming to pay homage to a nation liberated from colonial oppression against seemingly insurmountable odds.” After the visit, he “proudly claimed the Third World as an integral part of a worldwide social justice movement.”
After his break with the NOI and just after his chance encounter with King at the US Capitol, Malcolm took a transformative five-week tour of Africa and the Middle East in the spring of 1964. The tour put him on the path to becoming a conventional Muslim and prompted him to back away from anti-white views he had expressed while with the NOI. In Mecca, Saudi Arabia, he professed to see “sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.” He went on to Nigeria and “dreamed of becoming the leader of a political revolution steeped in the anti-colonial fervor sweeping Africa.” Malcolm’s time in Africa, Joseph concludes, “changed his mind, body, and soul . . . The African continent intoxicated Malcolm X and informed his political dreams.”
By the time of their March 1964 meeting, moreover, the two men had begun to recognize each other’s potential. After over a decade of forcefully criticizing the mainstream civil rights movement, Malcolm now recognized King’s goals as his own but chose “different methods to get there.” Malcolm also had a subtle effect on King. The “more he ridiculed and challenged King publicly,” Joseph writes, the more King “reaffirmed the strength of non-violence as a weapon of peace capable of transforming American democracy.” King for his part had begun to look outside the rigidly segregated South and toward major urban centers in the North, Malcolm’s bailiwick, as possible sites of protest that would “expand the freedom struggle beyond its southern roots.”
Joseph cites three instances in which Malcolm extended written invitations to King, all of which went unanswered. But in early February 1965, after Malcolm had participated in a panel discussion with King’s wife, King concluded that the time had come to meet with his formidable peer. Later that month, alas, Malcolm was gunned down in New York, almost certainly the work of the NOI, although details of the assassination remain murky to this day.
In the three years remaining to him after Malcolm’s assassination, King borrowed liberally from the black nationalist’s playbook, embracing in particular the notion of economic justice as a necessary component of full equality for African Americans. Although he never wavered in his commitment to non-violence, King saw his cause differently after the uprising in the Watts section of Los Angeles in the summer of 1965. Watts “transformed King,” Joseph writes, making clear that civil unrest in Northern cities was a “product of institutional racism and poverty that required far more material and political resources than ever imagined by the architects of the Great Society.” King also began to speak out publicly in 1965 against the escalation of America’s military commitment in Vietnam, marking the beginning of the end of his close relationship with President Johnson.
King delivered his most pointed criticism of the war on April 4, 1967, precisely one year prior to his assassination, at the Riverside Church in New York City, abutting Harlem, Malcolm’s home base. Linking the war to the prevalence of racism and poverty in the United States, King lamented the “cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.” Joseph terms King’s Riverside Church address the “boldest political decision of his career.” It was the final turning point for King, marking his formal break with mainstream politics and his “full transition” from a civil rights leader to a “political revolutionary” who “refused to remain quiet in the face of domestic and international crises.”
After Riverside, in his last year, King became what Joseph describes as America’s “most well-known anti-war activist.” King lent a Nobel Prize-winner’s prestige to a peace movement struggling to find its voice at a time when most Americans still supported the war. Simultaneously, he pushed for federally guaranteed income, decent and racially integrated housing and public schools — what he termed a “revolution of values.” During this period, Stokely Carmichael, who once worked with King in Mississippi (and is the subject of a Joseph biography), coined the term “Black Power.” In Joseph’s view, the Black Power movement represented the natural extension of Malcolm’s political philosophy, post-Malcolm. Although King frequently criticized the movement in his final years, he nonetheless found himself in agreement with much of its agenda.
King supported a Poor People’s march on Washington, D.C., in his final months. He was in Memphis, Tennessee, in April 1968 on behalf of striking sanitation workers, overwhelmingly African American, who held jobs but were seeking better salaries and more humane working conditions, when he too was felled by an assassin’s bullet. After reading Joseph’s masterful synthesis, it is easy to imagine Malcolm supporting King’s efforts in Memphis that April. And if the two men were still with us today, it is equally easy to imagine both embracing warmly the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
Photo credit: “Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Waiting for Press Conference” March 26, 1964. Library of Congress, via Creative Commons (Public Domain).