FRESH AIR: 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.” MORE