The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.— A Conversation with Professor Peniel E. Joseph
tags: African American history,Martin Luther King Jr.,Malcolm X,civil rights history
Dr. Peniel E. Joseph currently holds a joint professorship appointment at the University of Texas, Austin at the LBJ School of Public Affairs where he serves the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values, and at the History Department in the College of Liberal Arts. He is also the founding director of the LBJ School's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. He is the author of The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. (Basic Books, 2020).
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is features editor for the History News Network (hnn.us), and his work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Re-Markings, Real Change, Huffington Post, and more. He has a special interest in the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, and art. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He also served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. King. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is no way to understand the history, struggle, and debate over race and democracy in contemporary America without understanding Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.’s relationship to each other, to their own era, and, most crucially, to our time.
Professor Peniel E. Joseph, The Sword and the Shield
In popular memory, Malcolm X is often caricatured as a fiery racial separatist and Black Muslim proselytizer, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is recalled as a saintly preacher who worked for civil rights and conciliation. This simplified, one-dimensional perspective also suggests that the two men were committed adversaries who disregarded one another.
However, the story of each of these American icons is much more nuanced and more complex, as acclaimed American historian Professor Peniel E. Joseph reveals in his recent groundbreaking dual biography, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. (Basic Books).
In many ways, as Professor Joseph writes, both men were kindred spirits and both revolutionaries in their unique approaches to racism, social injustice, violence, and democracy. And both evolved. And both sacrificed their lives.
In the months before his assassination in February 1965, Malcolm had dispensed with his racist rhetoric and shared a broad vision of anticolonialism and international human rights that he drew in part from Dr. King’s dream of a “Beloved Community.”
And, in the last three years of his life, Dr. King moved on from civil rights issues to campaign against the three evils of materialism, militarism and racism. He spoke with Malcolm’s passion against the war in Vietnam and against economic injustice and he drew scorn not only from old enemies but from former friends and allies in the media and even in the civil rights movement.
Professor Joseph illuminates and interweaves the stories of these two extraordinary men in his compelling and vivid narrative based on extensive research and years of experience studying the history of Black freedom movements. He fleshes out the humanity and passions of his subjects while presenting an intellectual consideration of their philosophies as well as the historical context of their struggles, their activism, their transformations.
Professor Joseph is, in the words of renowned historian and Professor Ibram X. Kendi, “one of the greatest historians of Black America.”
Dr. Joseph currently holds a joint professorship appointment at the University of Texas, Austin at the LBJ School of Public Affairs where he serves the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values, and at the History Department in the College of Liberal Arts. He is also the founding director of the LBJ School's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. Joseph’s scholarship has focused on what he characterizes as Black Power Studies, the transnational movement for Black liberation in America and globally, whose reverberations are the site of both intellectual inquiry and ongoing political contestation against White Supremacy and anti-Black racism. Through six books, scores of essays and articles, and historiographical and theoretical critiques, Joseph has mapped out a genealogy of Black Power antecedents and influences that have impacted multiple fields of interdisciplinary scholarship.
In addition to his academic pursuits, Professor Joseph is a public intellectual who comments frequently on issues of race, democracy and civil rights in the print and broadcast media. He also has written several award-winning books, including Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America; Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama; and Stokely: A Life, a definitive biography of Stokely Carmichael. Further, he edited The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era and Neighborhood Rebels: Black Power at the Local Level.
Professor Joseph generously responded to questions on his work by telephone from his home in Texas.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations Professor Joseph on your dual biography of Malcolm X and Dr. King, The Sword and the Shield. Before I get to your book, I’d like to ask about your background as a historian. You’re a leading expert in American history with an emphasis on the civil rights era, the Black Freedom movement, and related issues. What sparked you to choose a career in history?
Professor Peniel E. Joseph: It’s due to my mother’s influence. I grew up in Jamaica, Queens, New York City, and my mother was a hospital worker and a union member at Mount Sinai hospital. It was really from her that I became interested in social justice and racial equality. She is a feminist, a deep Christian, and a human rights historian. I was on my first picket line in elementary school with her so I learned really fast about movements to end social injustice so that people could get together and demonstrate peacefully and change policies, and protect workers and provide people with cleaner water to drink and more access to housing and health care.
In addition to my mother’s deep interest, I was then growing up in New York City, which was segregated with a lot of police brutality during the years of [Mayors] Koch and David Dinkins. Seeing this up close sparked my interest in social movements, activism and politics intellectually, but also as an active person, as a human being.
Robin Lindley: I read that you entered college at age 16. That's remarkable.
Professor Peniel E. Joseph: No, I was 17 and graduated in three years. I finished at 20 as a double major in history and African studies and went on to get my Ph.D. at 27 at Temple University in Philadelphia.
I was very passionate about history and I think college and then graduate school led me to become a professor. It’s a privilege to read and study and learn for a living. And I've never lost my intellectual curiosity about these movements and the history.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for that background Professor Joseph. You’re an admired teacher as well as an acclaimed writer and an award-winning biographer. You have mentioned that you find biography a useful teaching tool for historians. How does biography come into your teaching?
Professor Peniel E. Joseph: Biography is really important because students and readers are captivated by stories. A great example of that is Barack Obama’s new book A Promised Land, as well as his earlier memoir, Dreams from My Father. He talks about basically his first three years as president but you get the campaign and get aspects of his family. And he tells a story that's very, very compelling with different anecdotes. He’s telling people a story, and through that story you get foreign policy, domestic policy, race, and the environment. You get so many different aspects of not only his life but the times and events that shaped him.
Biography is important because, when fleshing out a group of women or men through the actual lives of people who have lived in the past or who are living now, people come to better empathize with the struggles and the issues much more than if they have only abstractions. So even if there's this cataclysmic event, whether it's a civil war or a famine, if you tease out the life of one particular group of people or actors, people can actually connect with the larger story more than if the focus is at the level of abstraction and theory.
Robin Lindley: You accomplish that goal with history and lively storytelling in your new book, The Sword and the Shield, a dual biography of two iconic Americans, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You debunk many popular misconceptions about both men who are often seen as polar opposites. Did you know when you began the book that you would find that they were kindred spirits in many ways?
Professor Peniel E. Joseph: Yes. It was through doing research on other books that I started to see both of them differently and found out much more about King and breadth of his radical revolutionary politics as well as Malcolm’s political evolution. My research on Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power Movement eventually led me to write this book.
Robin Lindley: It’s a powerful story. In my view, you have intertwined two profiles in courage. Contemporary audiences may not know of their sacrifices. Dr. King and Malcolm X were under constant threat daily. They faced violence, death threats, and assassination attempts and, of course, both were assassinated. And both were under intense surveillance by the FBI. Dr. King was very aware that, when he traveled, the FBI bugged his rooms and tapped his phones, yet he always publicized his schedule. Their persistence is a study in resilience and courage. Their accomplishments came at a dreadful cost.
Professor Peniel E. Joseph: Yes. I think that you're right about what they faced at the time, the kinds of constant threats that they experienced. And most of us are never going to have to face those constant threats.
I tried in both their cases to give them the humanity that they and their families deserve, and also recount the risks they dared. And they definitely were very, very courageous people.
And it's remarkable that neither of them ever gave up. Malcolm X could have stayed in Africa and saved his life. Dr. King could have retreated as well. A lot of people wanted him to be a pastor and a public intellectual. They didn’t want him leading the Poor People's Campaign and the strike in Memphis.
But they continued their work. They were resilient and both were passionate about not just civil rights, but human rights. And that thought continues to resonate to this day in terms of the language they used with Dr. King stressing Black citizenship and Malcolm focused on Black dignity. But they came to see over time that both Black citizenship and Black dignity were required.
Robin Lindley: As you note in your book, Malcolm X and Dr. King met only once in person, at the US Senate in 1964. Did they keep in touch at all?
Professor Peniel E. Joseph: Yes. Their people wanted them to meet but they never got around to the meeting they were supposed to have.
Malcolm knew Clarence Jones, who was Dr. King's attorney, and they were supposed to meet again but did not. However, in December 1964, Malcolm went to Harlem and was sitting next to Andy Young, the future UN ambassador and mayor of Atlanta, while Dr. King gave a speech right after winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
Malcolm also went to Selma when King was in jail there. That was in February 1965, right before Malcolm died. He visited Coretta Scott King and told her that he admired her husband. He said he was just there to help and not hurt. He wanted people to know that if King didn't get voting rights, there was going to be an alternative. And that's what he'd been saying: the ballot or the bullet.
You could see the convergence in that final year of Malcolm’s life. In an interview, Malcolm also told the novelist Robert Penn Warren that he and Dr. King had the same goals for human dignity in mind.
Robin Lindley: Their work has so much resonance now. In The Sword and the Shield, you use a couple of metaphors with Malcolm X as a sword and a prosecutor for Black dignity and Dr. King as a shield and defense attorney for Black citizens. Can you talk about those descriptions?
Professor Peniel E. Joseph: Yes, absolutely.
One of the interesting things about both of them is their evolution. As this prosecuting attorney, Malcolm is really prosecuting white America for crimes against Black humanity that date back to racial slavery. One of the most striking things about listening to their speeches, with Malcolm’s from 1952 to 1965, and Dr. King’s from 1955 to 1968, is that they both start to confront racial slavery. That's a real motif in their speeches along with race, democracy, and caste privilege.
King served, initially at least, a different function as the defense attorney defending white and Black people, and arguing that Black people just want an equal and fair shot and full citizenship. He tells Black people that Jim Crow segregation and racial slavery have not somehow made white people irredeemable, even though he said, look, it's impacted the soul of white people because we shouldn't be living like this. That’s why the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [headed by Dr. King] adopted the motto “To Redeem the Soul of America.” That language recognized that all people were affected by the treatment of Black Americans, even those who felt they were in a more privileged position. And whites were not giving away anything because society is not supposed to be like this.
Over time though, Malcolm grew into a radical statesman who frequents the United Nations and travels overseas. After going on the Haj [the pilgrimage to Mecca], he felt whites could be part of the solutions and civil rights should be a human rights movement.
Robin Lindley: You illuminate King’s transformation after the death of Malcolm.
Professor Peniel E. Joseph: After Malcolm's death, King becomes the prosecutor. What's so interesting is that King, who had been the defense attorney, was still nonviolent but he attacked racism. He said that the biggest threat to peace in the country was white racism and white racial terror against Black people. The white people were producing the violence and there'd be peace but for the chaos from white people.
One of the fascinating things about King’s life is when he evolves and speaks truth to power. He's still talking about nonviolence, but he's speaking in bold radical terms about the need to end militarism and materialism and racism. King is an anti-imperialist. He argues for ending the war in Vietnam and building the Beloved Community through a revolution of values that resists racism and white supremacy. And King starts to call people out. He calls out the president and he calls out the Congress. And he calls the United States the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. King is also an anti-capitalist. He pleads with the nation to undergo a revolution of values wherein the poverty he witnesses in, for example, Marks, Mississippi that moves him to tears, will leave the nation’s conscience so troubled that America will have no choice but to remake itself by ending poverty for good.
Robin Lindley: And King also attacks the economic system and economic inequality.
Professor Peniel E. Joseph: Yes, King also worked on the ground as an organizer during the course of this [Poor Peoples] campaign, even in Mississippi, in the poorest zip code (Quitman County) in the country. He was in tears seeing all these poor Black folks, and he said to them that the way they were living was a crime. So he said they were going to Washington and they were going to get a guaranteed income, and they would stay there until they did. He’s using the same language Malcolm X who said that Black people had been the victims of a series of crimes against them. And then King talked about the Homestead Act and how the Act gave 40 acres of land to white European immigrants, but added that Black people never got their 40 acres and a mule. And, to this same audience of poor Blacks, he talked about Reconstruction, and he said these people are the same people telling you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
This is what we're facing in this country. As a scholar, I'm endlessly fascinated by both of these men and the language they used. They were both brilliant in their way. They utilized history to present the historical context of the way life was then. They did this in a way that becomes extraordinarily powerful.
Robin Lindley: Despite his radicalization, King never abandons nonviolence as a tactic.
Professor Peniel E. Joseph: For me, it’s always about King building a peace movement. I wanted to show in this book how King was a peaceful revolutionary who was going to Washington without a gun or a knife or even a curse word. He actually didn’t curse.
King was saying that we have to change the systems of domination and racial oppression or none of us are going to survive. So he's really remarkable. And this is where King and Malcolm converge in talking about citizenship and dignity. And by the end, King is saying Black is beautiful, and he's talking about Black pride. He’s using the words of Malcolm.
Folks like the Black Panthers misunderstood King. They failed to realize the revolutionary strength of massive non-violence civil disobedience. Stokely Carmichael was a Black Power icon who understood, admired, and respected King’s enormous power, even when, perhaps especially when, they disagreed. And he loved King even as he disagreed with his tactics vocally.
Stokely Carmichael realized that King was a revolutionary and that's why they were friends. King invited him to dine at his home, and King didn't do that to most people. Stokely was in the front row when King came out against the war again at Ebenezer [Baptist Church, Atlanta] and Stokely led the standing ovation. So, when you look at King and you see the fact that somebody like Stokely Carmichael respected and even loved him, it really is a much different portrait of the person that we celebrate on his holiday annually.
Robin Lindley: Yes. I didn't realize that King and Stokely Carmichael were so close until I read your book.
Professor Peniel E. Joseph: Yes. King is such a huge, capacious figure. I am very excited to just be able to delve deeper into his life. He's a real revolutionary, and he showed how you can be a revolutionary without also being violent, and how his revolution is about fundamental social change and transformation without any kind of violence.
Robin Lindley: It seems that the last three years of King's life, after his civil rights achievements, are often ignored in popular memory. However, in those final years he called out the evils of militarism, materialism and racism, as you stress. He spoke out against the Vietnam war and he planned the Poor People's Campaign. At the end of his life, he was in Memphis to support striking garbage workers. And he had a long history of speaking out for workers and union movements.
Professor Peniel E. Joseph: He absolutely did. Michael Honey had the great book on King and labor: Going Down the Jericho Road, as well as another book on King and labor.
King was a huge supporter of workers of all colors and backgrounds, but especially Black workers. He realized, as he struggled for racial justice and social justice for all people, that he had to look through the particular lens of the struggles of Black people.
King is a fascinating figure and we've turned him into this anodyne, milquetoast figure that everybody claims they love because he's not offensive. But he was somebody who fought for social justice, not just domestically but internationally. He spoke about violence, poverty, hunger, and racism, and how we could eradicate them if we had the right priorities. To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry, is absolutely indispensable to a richer, more nuanced, and historically and philosophically contextualized understanding of King.
Robin Lindley: And King lost many friends and allies when he moved from civil rights to criticizing the government, opposing the Vietnam War, and campaigning against income inequality and economic injustice. He was maligned in the press and even by former colleagues in the Civil Rights Movement for expanding his critique of America.
Professor Peniel E. Joseph: Yes. He lost that mainstream sheen and in those last three years. He had been a Nobel prize winner. He had been Time magazine’s man of the year. He had attended White House conferences with Kennedy and LBJ. He lost that sheen because he was critical of US imperialism and racial capitalism. He was also critical of domestic and international violence as he spoke about deep institutional problems that we have yet to confront. He felt that confronting those things was the only way we would have peace.
For King, it wasn’t enough to pass the Civil Rights Act. You still had police brutality. When he testified before the president’s Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders in October of 1967, he said that the roots of urban rioting were poverty and exploitation and racism. He was very outspoken and that's where I think he and Malcolm converged.
King became this outspoken leader who people felt uncomfortable with where, in an early iteration, people felt more comfortable with him. And it's really quite striking and extraordinary to see.
Robin Lindley: I never thought I’d see Nazis and other white supremacists openly rally in 21st century America or that I’d see a president and other national leaders spew racist rhetoric. This year has been especially hard with a deadly global pandemic that has disproportionately infected and killed Black and brown people in the US. Where do you find hope today Professor Joseph?
Professor Peniel E. Joseph: I found profound hope in the BLM protests of 2020; the voting rights activism of Stacey Abrams and Black women in Georgia; the moral Mondays movement of Reverend Barber in North Carolina; and the global dimensions of movements for Black citizenship/dignity that have galvanized human rights movements the world over.
Sam Cooke reminds us that “A change is gonna come,” and we are experiencing and undergoing that long, painful process of change now. A new world is not only possible, but on the horizon of existence. We have to work for it, but it is being created in each act of resistance, organizing, suffering, and love.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for those inspiring words Professor Joseph, and for sharing your thoughtful insights. And congratulations on your remarkable dual biography of two American revolutionaries, Malcolm X and Dr. King.
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