How do the political afterlives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. continue to shape American democracy? How does a common myth of opposition distort our understanding of civil rights?
In his dual biography, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
(Basic Books, 2020), Peniel E. Joseph
(Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin) interrogates the lives and philosophies of both Dr. King and Malcolm X. Although the two leaders were often depicted as advocating rival visions, Joseph unpacks the false binaries to reveal the many ways they influenced and persuaded one another. For Joseph, they shared a revolutionary path in search of black dignity, citizenship, and human rights.
Using the metaphor of the sword and the shield, Joseph contrasts Malcolm X’s belief in self-defense with Dr. King’s adherence to non-violence. Joseph reveals the manner in which King – as an insider raised in black Christianity – articulated the dream of equal citizenship as black America’s chief defense attorney. In contrast, Malcolm X – an outsider who reimagined himself while in prison using tenets from black nationalism and Islam – acted at the prosecuting attorney who unflinchingly accused white America of creating a cultural, political, and legal nightmare that deprived black citizens of their dignity.
But Joseph cautions against overstating familiar binaries. Based on nuanced, archival research, Joseph rejects Dr. King as a primarily conciliatory figure and Malcolm X as his “evil twin.” Both were radical figures who increasingly came to share a political vision. Rather than symbolizing a divided America, King and X’s strategies often furthered or clarified the other’s message: radical black citizenship as inextricably connected to radical black dignity. Joseph reveals both leaders as complex individuals who cannot be fully or accurately understood through simple binaries. Both were black revolutionaries and “kindred spirits whose very presence helped them fulfill their respective roles.”
In the podcast, Joseph emphasizes the role of women in the fight for civil rights, the disparate messages of the white and black press, and the profound effect the assassination of Malcolm X had on Dr. King. Reflecting on the 2020 national protests, Joseph sees the visions of both men in the Black Lives Matter movement – as well as concern with how police brutality reflects the racial caste system in the U.S.
Bernadette Crehan assisted with this podcast.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Democracy, Intelligent Design, and Evolution: Science for Citizenship (Routledge, 2013) and, most recently, “Retreat from the Rule of Law: Locke and the Perils of Stand Your Ground” in the Journal of Politics (August 2020).