A brilliant retelling of the lives of two civil rights pioneers reveals how their struggles increasingly brought their beliefs into alignment.
History professor Peniel E. Joseph holds the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. An able writer, his passion infuses every word of this surprisingly heretofore underreported history. Many biographers and historians have written of Malcolm X and King, of course. But Joseph breaks new ground by showing how their lives reflect variations of the Black experience in America and how they intertwined, often unknowingly.
In the spring of 1964, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. attended the US Senate debates on the historic Civil Rights Act. King, already a celebrity, was about to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Malcolm X, a representative of the Nation of Islam, was a controversial figure who rejected King’s signature nonviolence. But, as Joseph shows, by 1964, both men were changing. Malcolm X sought to influence and change democratic institutions. King understood racism and poverty as threats to the world. Both left legacies that continue to shape discussions of racism and injustice.
The Guardian described Joseph’s insights by saying, “Effectively challenging the conventional dichotomy between the two men, [he] shows, instead, how their paths became increasingly convergent, coming to represent overlapping and intersecting strains of revolutionary Black activism.” The Washington Post found this “… a fascinating story, full of subtle twists and turns.”
Companion works to Joseph’s history include The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Dead Are Arising by Les Payne, and Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s Begin Again. For more of Joseph’s scholarship, see his 2014 book, Stokely: A Life, about Stokely Carmichael. Amazon notes that Joseph draws on Carmichael’s “life as a prism through which to view the transformative African American freedom struggles of the 20th century.”
Compare and Contrast
Joseph compares and contrasts the upbringing and early adulthoods of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. He delves into Malcolm Little’s family, who revered civil rights pioneer Marcus Garvey and embraced “Black pride” and “Black dignity.”
Malcolm Little grew up the child of racial-justice pioneers daring enough to promote the radical philosophy of Black self-determination in the far reaches of the Midwest.Peniel E. Joseph
As an adult in prison, the author explains, Little embraced the Nation of Islam and its leader, Elijah Muhammad, and took the name Malcolm X. Joseph notes his abilities as a charismatic, provocative orator.
Developing King’s background, Joseph relates that he was the son of a prominent minister, Martin Luther King Sr., a model of intellectual and moral integrity.
As Malcolm X organized for the Nation of Islam, Martin Luther King Jr. developed a national reputation for leadership and became the pastor at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
Malcolm X’s rapid ascent, the author reports, caused suspicion within the Nation of Islam. Some questioned whether Elijah Muhammad or Malcolm X made the decisions, which Joseph makes clear, infuriated Muhammad.
King, Joseph presents in revealing detail, thought that Malcolm X sought Black supremacy – a reverse version of Jim Crow. But for Malcolm X, Joseph asserts, Black dignity meant self-determination and recognition of Black people’s humanity.
“I Have a Dream”
King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of 250,000 people at the 1963 March on Washington, DC.
A genuinely seismic event in American history, the Birmingham protests cleaved the nation in two, forcing citizens of all backgrounds to take honest measure of the intersection between race and democracy in national life. Peniel E. Joseph
Joseph insists that, while the speech became a landmark of the civil rights movement and of US history, people often misunderstand its message. They tend, he maintains, to remember King’s repeated soaring conclusion: “I have a dream.” But, crucially, Joseph finds that people neglect the speech’s commentary on Black poverty in an affluent country and King’s allusions to reparations for chattel slavery and Jim Crow. Joseph explains how the speech made racial equality the most important issue for American political activism and equal democracy.
Joseph offers as a touchstone President Lyndon Johnson’s first State of the Union speech, in which he called for dramatic advances in civil rights and an aggressive war on poverty.
In March of 1964, Malcolm X separated from Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam as King and Malcolm X increasingly recognized their mutual capabilities and interests.
Nation of Islam assassins murdered Malcolm X in New York City on February 21, 1965. Joseph reports that, despite the winter cold, more than 10,000 people attended his funeral.
In Selma, Alabama, Joseph describes how King and his followers faced brutal police violence on “bloody Sunday,” a day that strengthened Black voting rights. In August 1965 – the year of Malcolm X’s assassination and King’s bloody Sunday in Selma – Johnson signed the US Voting Rights Act.
Joseph cites a significant sermon in 1967, in which King called the war in Vietnam and violent protest riots “moral dead ends” and said the United States needed a “revolution in values.” Joseph regards this as manifesting King’s increasing radicalization, which the author attributes, in part, to Malcolm X’s murder.
Joseph paints a fundamental difference between the two men: Malcolm X remained suspicious about whether US democracy could overcome racism and poverty, and King always believed large-scale protests could shape policies.
For a growing corpus of Black folk around the nation, Malcolm, rather than any group he represented, inspired both belief and action. His domestic activism dovetailed with his political support for global anti-colonial struggles.Peniel E. Joseph
Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee set off a national crisis and violent riots. Joseph insists that, throughout their lives, Malcolm X’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s visions and aspirations drew closer to one another’s. They shaped and continue to shape new generations seeking justice and dignity.
This canonical history of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. paints them as antithetical representations of the Black American experience: one radical, anti-white and revolutionary; the other assimilationist, non-violent and evolutionary. Joseph obliterates this outdated notion and, while never minimizing the two leaders’ differences of birth, young adulthood, rise to activism, beliefs or methods, he demonstrates convincingly that Malcolm X and King worked from opposite ends to the same conclusions. Joseph’s approach heals a long-held notion in American political activism: that only two widely separated courses are possible. The author understands that allies in a greater struggle can hold disparate views and still fight together.