The Pastor’s Dilemma

In the wake of this year’s MLK Day, a colleague shared with me a short sermon that was recently delivered in a church and asked what I thought about it. As I read the sermon, I realized that I had rather strong opinions about the ideas expressed in the sermon, and that I would very much like to share those opinions, not only with the colleague who asked for them but with anyone who might be interested in the topic. I also realized it wasn’t going to be enough to just say “I don’t like it,” but that I would also have to back up that judgment with some arguments and evidence. Hence this lengthy post.

The Pastor begins his sermon as follows:

Back in the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were two very different leaders of the civil rights movement.

King was an African American Baptist pastor. Who used nonviolent strategies to try to change religious, social and political systems from within.

Malcolm X was a Black Muslim revolutionary. Who believed in extreme tactics. Who rejected the mainstream movement championed by King.

A little later, the Pastor has this to say:

The stark differences in leadership style are not that unusual in social or religious movements. Any time you are trying to change something, there are advocates who want to quietly work with the current power structure.

But those frustrated with the status quo often want things to change quickly and dramatically. King and Malcolm X are extreme opposites in the way they acted as change agents of their time.

Toward the end of his sermon, the Pastor offers a prayer in which, among other things, he explicitly identifies King as the model for his preferred leadership style.

Based on the above quotations, I understand the Pastor as conveying the following ideas:

  1. King and Malcolm were polar opposites in terms of their leadership style. This is clear from the phrases “two very different leaders,” “stark differences in leadership style,” and “extreme opposites in the way they acted.”
  2. Given that King and Malcolm were polar opposites, if King “used nonviolent strategies,” it follows that Malcolm must have favored violent strategies. The wording that Malcolm “believed in extreme tactics” reinforces the idea that he believed in violent tactics.
  3. Given that King and Malcolm were polar opposites, if King tried “to change religious, social and political systems from within,” it follows that Malcolm must have tried to bring about the desired change from outside these systems.
  4. It was probably because Malcolm wanted “things to change quickly and dramatically” that he became a “revolutionary,” chose “extreme tactics,” and worked from outside the systems he wanted to change.
  5. King was an “African American Baptist pastor” who used “nonviolent strategies,” while Malcolm was a “Black Muslim” who favored”extreme tactics.” Draw your own conclusions.
  6. As “change agents,” leaders tend to fall in two categories: (1) those “who want to quietly work with the current power structure,” and (2) those who feel so “frustrated with the status quo” that they “want things to change quickly and dramatically.” King belonged to the former category and Malcolm to the latter.
  7. We should emulate King, not Malcolm. People should not become “so frustrated with the status quo” as to take a “revolutionary” approach, use “extreme tactics,” and try to change the systems “quickly and dramatically.” What people ought to do is use “nonviolent strategies,” work “quietly” in collaboration “with the current power structure,” and always “from within” the systems they want to change.

What follows is my response to the Pastor’s thoughts and suggestions.

First of all, I wonder where the Pastor is getting his information about King and Malcolm. How familiar is he with the writings and speeches of these two men? Has he read any of the numerous biographies of King and Malcolm? Has he done any research into the African American struggle for civil rights? Has he studied social movements and leadership styles? How informed is he about race and racism in American history? The reason I ask these questions is because the very idea of King and Malcolm being polar opposites is based on outdated stereotypes and has been conclusively debunked. Yet, it keeps coming back, like a zombie. And the reason that this myth refuses to die is because it serves a useful function—it helps justify racism.

When Discipleship is Too Hard

The King/Malcolm binary is not just historically incorrect; it is also part of a problematic narrative that is favored by certain sections of the White population—specifically, by the type of liberals that King referred to as “White moderates.” These were people who opposed racism in theory but believed that King’s nonviolent movement to end racism was too extreme. This way of thinking is alive and well today, and it is often justified by a fictional narrative about King and Malcolm being mutually incompatible figures.

King and Malcolm

Consider the fact that during his life-time King was a controversial figure who was despised by a majority of White Americans. At the time of his death, King had an approval rating of only 25%. It was only in subsequent decades that King was gradually appropriated by mainstream American culture, which turned him into a larger-than-life hero, an iconic representation of liberal or “American” values, and the very symbol of polite respectability. In the process, King’s sharp critiques of American capitalism and imperialism were forgotten; his disillusionment with White liberals and the political establishment was buried away in an unmarked grave; and his radical agenda for justice and liberation became practically unmentionable. Today, the King of popular imagination is a great but harmless figure who cannot offend anyone, for his ideas and aspirations have been so thoroughly erased from our collective mind that they don’t pose any serious threat to the status quo. This is part of the secret of King’s posthumous popularity. Everyone—especially those who have the most to lose if King’s wishes were to come true—can now “celebrate” his life. In effect, the mainstream culture has essentially declawed and defanged much of King’s legacy.

I don’t want to digress, but it’s probably worth considering whether the memory and legacy of Jesus of Nazareth has suffered a similar tragedy. Worship, literal or metaphorical, is a powerful strategy that allows us to continue identifying with someone after we’ve decided that discipleship is too hard.

One particularly egregious way in which King has been domesticated is through a spurious comparison between him and Malcolm. In this story, Malcolm is imagined as a wild and dangerous revolutionary precisely so that this scary bogeyman would make King look gentle and docile in comparison—a safe alternative to the unhinged Malcolm. Among other things, this narrative allows King’s aggressive nonviolence to be re-branded as civility, patience, and even passivity in the face of oppression. In effect, Malcolm is demonized and King is deified—but not for anything that either of these two leaders actually stood for.

Every time I come across this narrative of “Bad Malcolm” vs. “Good King,” I know exactly what will come next—what inevitably follows in the wake of this comparison is unsolicited advice for how the oppressed are supposed to behave: Don’t be like the crazy Malcolm. Be mild and mellow. Don’t rock the boat. Now is not the right time. Don’t be in such a hurry. Change will come if you ask for it nicely, so try to be patient. Work to change the system quietly, in small increments, and from within. Be like [the safe version of] King.

This may sound like sincere advice—until we realize that it’s the same advice that was repeatedly given to King himself, who rejected it outright, and until we learn that King and Malcolm were nowhere near as different as this narrative would have us believe.

Violence vs. Nonviolence

Let’s begin with the heart of the purported contrast between King and Malcolm, i.e., the issue of violence. The notion that Malcolm supported violence while King advocated nonviolence is based on a grossly oversimplified view of the civil rights movement and a lack of understanding of what these two men were trying to accomplish.

Below are some of the most important points to keep in mind:

First, the suggestion that Malcolm “believed in extreme tactics,” with the implication that he advocated violence, is not only preposterous; it’s also offensive, especially when uttered by a White person. When it comes to Blacks and Whites in the United States, it is no mystery as to which side has perpetrated violence and which side has suffered from it. Anyone even slightly informed about the past and present of racial violence in this country should be able to see just how ignorant and insulting it is to accuse Malcolm of believing in violence when his entire struggle was aimed at ending the centuries-old violence against his people.

Second, Malcolm never suggested that Blacks should initiate violence against the White population. Instead, he merely told the victims of racist violence to do whatever was necessary to protect themselves. He promoted self-defense. From an ethical viewpoint, the violence perpetrated by the oppressors and the powerful does not belong in the same moral category as the violence that the oppressed and the powerless may commit to defend themselves. Malcolm had seen White brutality against African Americans all through his life, starting with the murder of his own father. He refused to accept that being victimized in this way was a normal part of being Black in America. He therefore urged his Black audience to stop being doormats, to not let White people walk all over them. He taught them to develop the courage to stand up against bullies, to recognize their self-worth even when others don’t, and to defend themselves against racist violence by any means necessary—because their bodies and their lives were worth defending.

Malcolm himself did not carry a weapon and he was not known for acting violently toward anyone. By advocating for self-defense, Malcolm was trying to establish the full humanity of African Americans. The gist of his argument was as follows: If White people have the right to defend themselves, and if Black people are equal to them as human beings and as citizens, then they must also be able to enjoy that same right. Here is Malcolm making this exact point in his 1963 speech, “Message to the Grassroots.”

If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it’s wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it’s wrong for America to draft us and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.

If a White man doesn’t approve of “extreme tactics” when they are used by African Americans to fight racism, then what I would like to know is how often does he condemn our nation’s military adventures around the globe?

The point, of course, is that many people who insist that oppression must only be fought through nonviolent means tend not to criticize the violence perpetrated by the oppressors, especially by the groups and institutions they identify with. Such individuals would invoke King’s name to argue that any demonstration against police brutality must be peaceful, but the trigger for such demonstrations—i.e., police brutality itself—doesn’t seem to offend them as much as protesters blocking traffic or burning tires. This puts a huge question mark on their commitment to nonviolence.

Third, the Pastor approves of the fact that King used “nonviolent strategies” but does not approve of Malcolm’s support for “extreme tactics” (i.e., violence); this may seem logically consistent, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a glaring contradiction. That’s because King’s advocacy for nonviolence and Malcolm’s encouragement of self-defense were closely located on the same strategic and ethical spectrum. King’s own source in this matter, i.e., Mahatma Gandhi, did not reject all violence in absolute terms; in fact, he thought there were worse things than violence.

According to Gandhi, the best option in the face of oppression is nonviolent resistance. However, he also believed that violence was preferable if the only other option was to surrender, feel humiliated, or lose respect for oneself: “I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” Elsewhere, he said that it is best to “cultivate the cool courage to die without killing,” but if one cannot muster that sort of courage, then “I want him to cultivate the art of killing and being killed rather than, in a cowardly manner, flee from danger.”

On self-defense, Gandhi had this to say: “I have been repeating over and over again that he who cannot protect himself or his nearest and dearest or their honor by nonviolently facing death may and ought to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor.” Furthermore, “Though violence is not lawful, when it is offered in self-defense or for the defense of the defenseless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission.” Unlike the Pastor, Gandhi didn’t think that he had the right to tell the oppressed how they should fight oppression: “Under violence, there are many stages and varieties of bravery. Every man must judge this for himself. No other person can or has the right.”

I am sure that Gandhi would strongly favor King’s approach, but I am equally certain that he would also appreciate Malcolm’s perspective as a courageous and honorable response to oppression.

Fourth, people in our country have the right to bear arms. In an ideal world, weapons wouldn’t exist because no one would need them. But so long as they do exist, society is going to need some mechanism to prevent one group from dominating another simply by virtue of being better armed. There is still a double standard in the United States around gun ownership: A White man holding an assault rifle is a patriot but a Black kid holding a toy gun is an imminent threat. Yet, the U.S. Constitution allows every American citizen to possess weapons, including guns, and to use such weapons if it becomes necessary for defending oneself, one’s family, or one’s property. In fact, one reason why someone might refrain from initiating violence is the fear of retaliation. White folks who perpetrated violence against Blacks in American cities were able to do so precisely because of the confidence that comes from being heavily armed; they didn’t fear retaliation from their victims and they knew their racial privilege protected them from any meaningful prosecution. In that situation, when Malcolm would urge African Americans to purchase guns, he was neither advocating aggression against Whites nor a revolution against the government; he was simply telling the brutalized to do what they had every right to do as American citizens—to legally own weapons. The purpose of encouraging gun ownership was not to harm White people but to discourage them from harming Black people. This isn’t what the Pastor might call “extreme tactics.” It’s deterrence.

Moreover, it is absurd to even suggest that Malcolm would have wanted his people—a racial minority in the United States—to pick up arms against the White majority, a significant portion of which had a long history of getting away with brutal racist violence, including lynchings. Does anyone really think that Malcolm was so dense as to not understand that it was his people who would have suffered annihilation had they started a race war in America?

Fifth, the common belief that African Americans achieved civil rights (to the extent that they did) through entirely nonviolent means isn’t correct either. In the South, it was common for Blacks to own guns. They had to be willing to shoot in case the KKK were to visit their homes or farms. Black ownership of weapons and their determination to use them if necessary played a major role in the civil rights movement. Among other things, it allowed King to make the argument that the White establishment ought to listen to his movement, for otherwise they might have to face possible uprisings from desperate African American who had lost all hope and had nothing left to lose. The Pastor may want to consult the work of Charles E. Cobb on this topic.

The history of the civil rights movement is complex and multifaceted. Reducing its many dimensions and nuances to a single strategy or a single leader is an act of carelessness that shows a lack of genuine interest in the topic.

The King/Malcolm Binary

In his sermon, the Pastor claims that Malcolm was a “revolutionary” while implying that King, being the polar opposite, was not. This is not only historically inaccurate; it also reveals a lack of understanding of what it means to be a “revolutionary.” In fact, both Malcolm and King were revolutionaries in their own ways. It was precisely because of their revolutionary tendencies that both Malcolm and King were attracted to certain specific aspects of their respective faith traditions and were not interested in other aspects. Indeed, King and Malcolm weren’t “religious” in some generic sense of the word; they were religious in particularly radical and revolutionary ways that matched their personal and social contexts.

King was a Christian, but he didn’t agree with many strands of Christianity, such as those that supported slavery, segregation, and warmongering, which he openly criticized; instead, he identified with some of the most radical and liberationist elements in the Christian tradition. In fact, he was more than willing to claim such elements as his own regardless of which religious or secular tradition they came from.

The connection between King’s Christian faith and his use of “nonviolent strategies” is not as simple or straightforward as the Pastor might have led his congregation to assume. King was initially attracted to the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose theology of “Christian Realism” taught that political violence was ethically justifiable and that Christians should not be pacifists. As he acknowledged in “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” (1960), King as a young seminary student “had almost despaired of the power of love in solving social problems,” and thought that the whole idea of loving one’s enemies was only relevant for interpersonal conflicts while racial or national conflicts required “a more realistic approach.” While he did not believe that war could be a “positive or absolute good,” he thought it could be “a negative good in the sense of preventing the spread and growth of an evil force.” It was only after King attended a talk in 1950 by Dr. Johnson, President of Howard University, on the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, that his mind started to change. He eventually met many proponents of nonviolence during his doctoral studies at Boston University, and that’s when he fully outgrew Niebuhr’s influence.

It was after King had discovered nonviolence by way of Gandhi that he began to appreciate it in relation to Jesus’ life and teachings: “I came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” King didn’t know that “love” could be a revolutionary force until he encountered Gandhi. It was for this reason that King, in a 1959 sermon, declared Gandhi to be “the greatest Christian of the twentieth century.”

In contrast, Malcolm’s lived experience had taught him that religious faith wouldn’t restrain the racist tendencies of American Christians; he knew that Christianity had been complacent in White supremacy and Black oppression, and he had no reason to believe that this tradition could offer anything positive to his people. In fact, Malcolm initially had no interest in religion. In the prison, he couldn’t bring himself to pray because it required him to be humble, and his life experience up to that point had showed him that humility would only make you a target for bullies. He did learn to pray, however, and joined the Black religious movement called the “Nation of Islam” while still in prison. Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam because it offered him a powerful opportunity for meeting his needs and serving his values—he found meaning, purpose, acceptance, belonging, confidence, dignity, self-respect, and direction. The teachings of Elijah Muhammad appealed to Malcolm’s revolutionary tendencies and his passion for justice, for the leader of the Nation of Islam was willing to openly condemn White supremacy while showing the path towards Black dignity and Black liberation.

It is interesting to note that the sermon quoted above doesn’t give any details about Malcolm’s religion; it simply says that he was a “Black Muslim.” This is problematic, even for a brief sermon, since the phrase is ambiguous and can be easily misinterpreted by an uninformed audience. The author of the sermon doesn’t clarify to his audience that the phrase “Black Muslim” can either mean “an African American person who is an adherent of Islam” (where “Islam” refers to the global religion founded in the 7th century) or it can mean “a member of the Nation of Islam” (where “Nation of Islam” refers to an African American sectarian movement established in 1930 and led by Elijah Muhammad and later by Louis Farrakhan). Nor does the Pastor explain that the overlap between these two meanings of “Black Muslim” is somewhere between minimal and non-existent. This convenient omission is likely to activate some of the stereotypical fears that White people often associate with the words “Black” and “Muslim.” It’s a subtle effect, and it can happen instantly as well as unconsciously. But not recognizing this possibility and not doing anything to prevent it still count as irresponsible negligence.

What complicates the matter is that the term “Black Muslim” applies to Malcolm in both senses of the phrase, but not simultaneously. Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam around 1948 and announced his break from this movement in March 1964. Before the break, Malcolm was a “Black Muslim” in the latter sense of the phrase; after the break, he became a “Black Muslim” in the former, and more commonly understood, sense of the phrase. From that moment until his death in February 1965, Malcolm was busy “reinventing” himself, as Manning Marable would say, renouncing many of his previous beliefs and charting a new direction for his life and public career. This process of reinvention included his conversion to mainstream Islam, as epitomized by his participation in the annual Muslim pilgrimage, or the Hajj. All of these developments, as well as the nuances in the evolution of Malcolm’s thinking, seem to be irrelevant to the author of the sermon who seems to suggest, instead, that all we need to know about Malcolm is that he was a “Black Muslim” who believed in “extreme tactics.”

The Pastor also believes that King worked from “within” the systems he wanted to change, and that this was a better option than what Malcolm chose. That astonishing claim fits right into the “Bad Malcolm” vs. “Good King” narrative. The reality is that King was willing to take any route that would help his cause; he worked with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to get civil rights legislation passed and to help implement Supreme Court rulings, but that doesn’t mean that he was somehow against working from outside the system. In fact, King is best known for his leadership in mobilizing African Americans in order to force the status quo to change at a time when it was particularly stubborn in its support for racism. Most of King’s strategizing was around marches, boycotts, protests, civil disobedience, and direct actions. Knowing this should be enough for anyone to recognize that much of King’s movement was about putting popular pressure on deeply entrenched systems from the outside. King would never have used such tactics if he were committed to working “quietly” and incrementally and entirely from “within” the established order.

The Pastor suggests that working in collaboration with “the current power structure” is the best option for “change agents,” and that this is exactly what King did. In reality, working with “the current power structure” is only one strategy among many others; depending on a variety of factors, it may or may not be the best option. That’s why King used this strategy on some occasions but not on other occasions. For King, working with “the current power structure” was only a means and never an end in itself. Consider the fact that taking a strong stand against the Vietnam war meant that King had to sacrifice his relationship with President Johnson. King took that stand because he had a greater commitment to his conscience than to collaborating with the government. King knew that collaborating with “the current power structure” can sometimes help solve a problem, while at other times such collaboration is itself part of the problem.

It is also worth considering that King’s activities frequently involved breaking laws, which is why he was arrested almost 30 times in the span of ten years. The FBI was constantly running a surveillance operation against King. According to FBI’s official assessment, King was “the most dangerous Negro leader of the future.” King received a constant barrage of death threats throughout his public career, and eventually died of an assassin’s bullet. None of this is compatible with the proposition that King wanted to change things by collaborating with “the current power structure” and by “quietly” working from “within” the existing systems.

We shouldn’t forget that the only avenues for change from “within” that the political status quo offered at the time involved either the ballot box or the courts; the former was effectively blocked by systemic disenfranchisement, while the latter was too slow and inefficient. Of course, King wasn’t opposed to using these avenues—and he did use them whenever he could—but he also knew that entrenched systems did not alter their course until they absolutely had to, and that this often required pressure from the outside. It is worth recalling that King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to the clergymen who were insisting that racial segregation should be fought only in the courts—that is, from “within” the system—and not in the streets.

The Pastor’s suggestion that King’s leadership style involved working “quietly” is not a compliment; it actually diminishes his stature. King had been accused of many things, including that he was a “demagogue” and a “communist,” but no one in his life-time ever accused his of working “quietly.” Try to imagine how far we have come from the historical King—a man who was viewed by the establishment as a radical trouble-maker and a threat to national security—all the way down to this uninspiring portrait of a tame and innocuous individual who wouldn’t even raise his voice.

The idea that Malcolm wanted things to change “quickly and dramatically” whereas King was content with making slow and incremental progress in collaboration with the political establishment is total nonsense. Yet, this fake praise of King can be fixed in only a few words: Just ponder the title of King’s 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait, and then contemplate this powerful passage from King’s 1967 sermon “Beyond Vietnam.”

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.”

The element of urgency and impatience in King’s rhetoric is no less than what we find in Malcolm’s speeches.

The Pastor describes King’s movement as “mainstream,” implying that Malcolm and his followers were a fringe element. Not true. Outside the southern states, Malcolm had immense influence. Even today, Malcolm continues to attract both scholarly and popular attention. As evidence, consider the number of books and articles that have been published about Malcolm in just the last twenty years.

To say that Malcolm was “frustrated with the status quo” implies that King wasn’t. This claim is intended to elevate King over Malcolm by suggesting that the former could manage his emotions better than the latter. The implicit assumption, however, is that the main problem was not so much that American racism was awful and so dealing with it would have been immensely frustrating for anyone, but that Malcolm was being too sensitive. The implication that King never become “frustrated with the status quo” is obviously unfounded, for he did receive plenty of harassment, opposition, and animosity throughout his public career, and, as a result, experienced strong feelings of anger, disappointment, and righteous indignation. But it takes a privileged White man to accomplish the virtually impossible task of failing to imagine what any Black person fighting racism in American must feel every day.

The Sermon’s Approach

Having addressed some of the specific issues, I would now like to identify three major problems that characterize the approach behind the sermon, any one of which would’ve been fatal on its own.

First, it appears that the Pastor is not familiar with what nonviolence means. He seems to believe that nonviolence is about (1) not acting in violent ways, (2) being calm and agreeable, (3) not engaging in conflict, (4) being patient and willing to compromise, (4) being content with slow and incremental change, and (5) never getting frustrated with the status quo. He would be surprised to learn that other than the first one (“not acting in violent ways”), none of these features have any connection to nonviolence as understood and practiced by King. Contrary to the Pastor’s naive assumption, nonviolence is not synonymous with “absence of violence.” This error is so basic that it damages the credibility of the entire sermon.

The second major problem I see is that the sermon’s portrayals of King and Malcolm appear to be based on rather superficial impressions that were probably formed at a particular point in the distant past and were never expanded, corrected, or updated.

Basically, there are two main ways of thinking about a person—we can either take a synchronic approach or a diachronic approach. In the former case, we look at how a certain individual was at a particular moment in time, without considering the past or the future. In the later case, we consider an individual as a dynamic being, and try to understand how this person grows, evolves, and transforms over time. The synchronic approach is analogous to taking a snapshot of a river; the river is in constant motion, but the camera freezes it into a two-dimensional static image. It may be a high-resolution image, but it is devoid of the temporal element and therefore incapable of conveying any sense of change over time. Of course, the same river can also be studied using the diachronic approach, but that requires a lot more work and a much greater commitment to the subject matter than just pushing a button.

The Pastor’s approach to King and Malcolm is entirely synchronic. It takes two highly complex and dynamic human beings with freedom and agency, seeks to capture their essence at a single moment in time, and then attempts to convey that essence in a few short sentences. No wonder this approach produced two flat, static, and oversimplified images that bear little, if any, resemblance to the persons in questions.

If we compare the two leaders as they might have appeared to most White Americans in the early 1960s, we would notice that Malcolm was angrily denouncing the nightmare of being Black in America while King had high hopes that the nation would fully embrace its Black citizens. Recall that King’s most optimistic speech—“I have a dream”—was delivered during the march on Washington in 1963. Malcolm wasn’t impressed, for he could see no point in trying to integrate Black people into what he saw as an incorrigibly racist White society. If the story of Malcolm and King had ended that year—and if there were no resources available other than what was shown on television at that time—a relatively uninformed White person would have readily assumed that Malcolm and King were totally different. However, the story did not end at that point and significant changes in the lives of both leaders continued to take place in the following years. 

I don’t dispute the fact that Malcolm and King were very different individuals. What the Pastor gets wrong is not that they were different but that they were opposites. In fact, I think the biographical factors that account for some of the differences between the two men are worth knowing. These include social class, family, education, life experiences, attitudes toward Whites, and approaches to the problem of race in America. Much of the following account is based on James Cone’s 1991 book, Malcolm & Martin & America: Dream or Nightmare. This background is necessary for understanding how these two individuals evolved in the last years of their respective lives.

Let’s start from the beginning. King was raised in a relatively affluent home. His father was an influential and well-known pastor who personally knew many powerful individuals. King belonged to the southern, upwardly mobile Black professional class, and had therefore absorbed from his immediate surroundings a sense of optimism about racial progress.

In contrast, Malcolm came from a poor working class family. After his father was murdered by the KKK when he was still a child, Malcolm spent several years being tossed from one foster home to another with various White foster parents. Unlike King, Malcolm did not grow up with older Black individuals around him who could serve as positive role models. Malcolm’s very skin tone (“red”) was a constant reminder to him of White brutality, as his maternal grandmother was raped by a White man. In contrast, King was “black,” which means his immediate ancestors hadn’t experienced White sexual violence.

Malcolm faced intense racial discrimination from his teachers, and ended up dropping out of school in the eighth grade. He eventually taught himself to read and write all over again while he was in prison, and went on to educate himself on every conceivable topic by reading books from the prison library. In contrast, King’s mother was a school teacher who taught him to read before he entered school. King did not encounter racial discrimination in the course of his schooling, for this was the era of segregation; he attended two public schools in Atlanta, GA, before going to Morehouse College. King had access to enough family support and cultural capital to be able to skip grades twice, which is how he ended up in college at age 15 without formally graduating from high school, and eventually earned a PhD at the age of 26.

coneAfter dropping out of school, Malcolm had to learn how to survive on the streets. He was a thief and a hustler, until he ended up in prison. Malcolm eventually transformed himself into an orator, a preacher, and a leader through self-discipline and determined effort. In contrast, King got his first job as a pastor at age 25 when he was still finishing his dissertation; he never had to struggle financially. By becoming a pastor, King was following in his father’s footsteps and in some ways he was simply continuing the family business. Malcolm had to win his sense of self-worth through a hard struggle against internalized racism; in contrast, even as a child King never doubted that he was a worthy individual despite being Black.

Malcolm had no reason to believe that African Americans would ever be fully accepted in White society, for he hadn’t had many positive experiences involving White people. King too had acquired strong anti-White sentiments while growing up, which he was only able to overcome through his interaction with White students who were involved in interracial organizations at Crozer Theological Seminary, which was the first integrated school that King attended. Towards the end of his life, however, King was rapidly losing his initial faith in the ability of White people to overcome their racist tendencies.

Integration vs. Independence

Ultimately, however, Malcolm and King had different leadership styles because they were attracted to two distinct Black traditions. These traditions represent two different answers to the question that African Americans have repeatedly asked themselves: How do we find justice? One answer has been “integration,” the other “independence.”

According to the first tradition, African Americans can establish positive relations with White people and win equality and dignity by appealing to the common American values of freedom and democracy. According to second tradition, African Americans must practice unity and solidarity within their own communities and learn to stand on their own feet, without being dependent on White society. The first tradition is optimistic about integration and equality, whereas the second comes out of a collective sense of despair. The first tradition is associated with figures like Frederick Douglass, and that’s the tradition to which King subscribed. This hope for integration is based on the assumption that the American commitment to the idea that “all men are created equal” is sincere and genuine, and that the problem has only been in its faulty implementation. In contrast, the desire for independence and self-sufficiency is associated with figures like Marcus Garvey, though it can be traced all the way back to the earliest slave revolts, and that’s the tradition that made most sense to Malcolm. This tradition is based on a hermeneutic of suspicion; it asserts that African Americans shouldn’t gamble their lives and future on the unproven and risky idea that White folks actually mean it when they say that “all men are created equal.”

Of course, it would be too simplistic to say that there are just two traditions. Rather, there is a spectrum of viewpoints between integration and independence. The relevant point here is that while King remained loyal to the integrationist approach, by the end of his life he had started to recognize that a certain level of despair was justified, and that the Black tradition that insisted on achieving independence without any help from White society wasn’t completely misguided. Similarly, Malcolm remained a staunch supporter and advocate of Black independence, sometimes referred to as “nationalism,” but in the final year of his life he had started to appreciate the value of the integrationist tradition.

In 1964, Malcolm left the Nation of Islam and joined the mainstream Muslim community. At that time, Malcolm announced that he wanted to work with other civil rights leaders, something he hadn’t done until that point because Elijah Muhammad had prohibited such cooperation; but now he was free to pursue his own instincts. In the last year of his life, Malcom become increasingly global in his outlook and critical of capitalist exploitation. He started to recognize the necessity of building solidarity among all oppressed people. He also began to notice that the Black/White dynamic was part of the larger, and more salient, Oppressor/Oppressed dynamic.

Malcolm, of course, was assassinated in February 1965, while King lived for another three years—until he too was murdered in April 1968. These three years are immensely relevant for our story, for it was during this time that King began to appreciate what Malcolm had been saying all along. King grew increasingly frustrated as White racism started to wake up to the challenge posed by the civil rights movement and quickly succeeded in reducing the pace of racial progress. As King tried to take his movement into the northern states, he was increasingly met with sophisticated forms of White opposition that proved harder to defeat than the overt racism of the South. With the passage of time, King became more and more pessimistic about the ability of White people to give up their power and privilege for the sake of a moral imperative. Like Malcolm, King also expanded his vision, became increasingly global in his outlook, and start to openly talk about the intersection of racism, capitalism, and militarism. Today, the mainstream culture tends to be exclusively focused on King’s most optimistic words, especially his “I have a dream” speech, but if King had lived just few more days, the world would have heard him deliver a sermon with the provocative title “Why America May Go to Hell.”

The conclusion should be obvious: During the final years of his life Malcolm had shown significant progress in moving closer to King’s viewpoint, whereas King, during the last years of his life, had moved a great deal toward Malcolm’s perspective. On the days of their respective deaths, therefore, it is fair to say that Malcolm and King had very similar ideas, hopes, fears, and concerns. I like to imagine that if they hadn’t been assassinated during the prime of their lives, by the early 1970s Malcolm and King would have succeeded in bringing their followers together into a single, world-wide movement for human liberation. I believe this is a reasonable conjecture based on how their respective viewpoints were evolving in the final years of their lives.

The Pastor’s Dilemma

The third major problem in the sermon’s approach, and perhaps the most fundamental one, has to do with its reliance on bad logic. The Pastor seems to believe that difference is synonymous with opposition, but that is incorrect. It is possible for two propositions, A and B, to be true at the same time, and if that’s how we choose to think of the leadership styles of Malcolm and King then we can appreciate how both were perfectly valid despite their differences. The alternative is to imagine two propositions, A and not-A, which by definition cannot both be true at the same time, for the truth of one logically requires the falsity of the other. As the wording of the sermon demonstrates, the Pastor is not approaching the two leadership styles in question as merely different from each other; he is thinking of them as opposites and therefore mutually exclusive.

According to this reasoning, if King’s leadership style was valid then Malcolm’s must be invalid, and if Malcolm’s leadership style was valid then King’s must be invalid. By assuming that difference in this case is identical with incompatibility, the Pastor is making a fundamental error. As a result, if he affirms something for King, he must negate it for Malcolm; if he affirms something for Malcolm, he must negate it for King. Trapped by faulty logic, the Pastor cannot bring himself to see the many overlaps, interconnections, and similarities between the two men and their leadership styles; it also makes him uninterested in how these leaders had started to move toward each other’s viewpoints. The Pastor then expresses an unequivocal preference for King, over and against Malcolm, expecting that everyone else will agree with him. Yet, he is actually putting his congregation in a dilemma by creating an unnecessary choice.

It is indeed true that Malcolm and King had different leadership styles. These two men came from different backgrounds, had different temperaments, and experienced different forms of racism. As a result, they were attracted to two different Black traditions: King sought integration while Malcolm pursued independence. Yet, none of this means that Malcolm and King were opposites.

While they only met once in person, Malcolm and King were in constant dialogue. They kept each other sharp and honest. Malcolm was strong in the areas where King was weak, and King was strong in the areas where Malcolm was weak. While neither of them would have have admitted it, Malcolm and King were dependent on each other. Their viewpoints were not mutually exclusive; they were complementary. America needed both men, and still does. There is no need to pick one and reject the other.

On White Privilege

The dilemma created by the Pastor is not only unnecessary; it is also based on historically inaccurate images—caricatures, really—of the two men, which makes the comparison false and the choice pointless. This means that when the Pastor picks King, he is only picking what he thinks King represented; and when he rejects Malcolm, the Pastor is simply rejecting what he believes Malcolm represented. In the sermon, King and Malcolm are like two blank screens on which the Pastor projects his own likes and dislikes, respectively. Given how uninformed the Pastor is regarding King and Malcolm, we end up learning more about him than about the two towering figures.

Yet, there is value in studying this sermon that goes far beyond its particular author. We can study the sermon for it unintentionally reveals regarding how racism adapts and reproduces itself in American society.

The sermon can also give us a glimpse of how White racial privilege works. For instance, I can’t imagine myself getting up on stage, let alone standing behind a pulpit, and speaking confidently on a topic about which I know next to nothing. I can’t imagine doing this because I have a healthy fear of being challenged and contradicted in public for saying something dumb, insensitive, or ignorant. The Pastor who delivered the sermon on King and Malcolm had no such fear. What could have been the source of his otherwise unreasonable confidence except the privilege that comes from being White and Christian in a society that views these characteristics as normative?

The ninth principle of the concentration of wealth and power deals with one of Chomsky’s abiding themes, i.e., the mechanisms through which thought control—or the manufacturing of consent—takes place in a liberal democracy.


Chomsky begins by referring to the origins of the public relations and advertising industries at the turn of the twentieth-century:

The public relations industry, the advertising industry, which is dedicated to creating consumers, it’s a phenomenon that developed in the freest countries, in Britain and the United States, and the reason is pretty clear. It became clear by, say, a century ago, that it was not going to be so easy to control the population by force. Too much freedom had been won. Labor organizing, parliamentary labor parties in many countries, women starting to get the franchise, and so on. So, you had to have other means of controlling people. And it was understood and expressed that you have to control them by control of beliefs and attitudes.

Here, Chomsky is answering a critical question: How does the ruling class maintain its control over the population despite the growing consciousness of civil rights and democratic freedoms? During most of civilized history, elite control of the population was maintained largely through the threat and use of organized violence, and to a lesser extent through religious legitimation of the status quo. Every now and then popular rebellions did occur, but they tended to be ruthlessly crushed by the rulers. From the rise of cities to the beginning of the industrial age, violent force remained the main instrument employed by the ruling classes for keeping the masses obedient and for discouraging any fantasies of rebellion against the established order. This dynamic started to change, however, in the wake of the Glorious Revolution (1688) and the French Revolution (1789). As the ideals of human equality and popular sovereignty started to gain wide acceptance, it became increasingly difficult for the elite to rule through force alone. To the extent that violence or the threat of violence were no longer effective in controlling the masses, it became imperative for them to solicit and gain the support and consent of the masses—or risk losing their legitimacy.

In the United States, a number of key freedoms and rights were won during the Progressive Era—developments that were correctly seen by the elites as threats to their economic and political interests. As a result, a need arose at the beginning of the twentieth-century for managing the perceptions of the population in increasingly subtle and sophisticated ways. The public relations and advertising industries came into being at that time precisely to meet that need, and just in time for President Woodrow Wilson to use them for his own project: gaining public support for American entry in the First World War. The aim of these new industries and associated professions was to apply the latest scientific discoveries concerning human motivation and behavior in the service of the rich and powerful; this was to be achieved through using the print media and other forms of mass communication for shaping popular beliefs and attitudes.

Chomsky has previously discussed the political aspects of this phenomenon in his 1988 Massey lectures, subsequently published as Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (1989). In the preface to that book, Chomsky explains that a major contradiction is inherent within the structure of capitalist democracies: Capitalism tends to concentrate power in the hands of the wealthy, while democracy requires that power be widely distributed among the population. For Chomsky, the manufacturing of consent through mass media is the most common way in which the ruling elite have typically sought to overcome that contradiction:

In capitalist democracies there is a certain tension with regard to the locus of power. In a democracy the people rule, in principle. But decision-making power over central areas of life resides in private hands, with large-scale effects throughout the social order. One way to resolve the tension would be to extend the democratic system to investment, the organization of work, and so on. That would constitute a major social revolution, which, in my view at least, would consummate the political revolutions of an earlier era and realize some of the libertarian principles on which they were partly based. Or the tension could be resolved, and sometimes is, by forcefully eliminating public interference with state and private power. In the advanced industrial societies the problem is typically approached by a variety of measures to deprive democratic political structures of substantive content, while leaving them formally intact. A large part of this task is assumed by ideological institutions that channel thought and attitudes within acceptable bounds, deflecting any potential challenge to established privilege and authority before it can take form and gather strength.

To paraphrase, a society that claims to follow both capitalism and democracy at the same time, such as the United States, must somehow deal with the following tension: on the one hand, democracy requires that people enjoy the right to participate in any decision that affects them, while, on the other hand, capitalism requires that private owners of capital enjoy the right to manage their capital without any interference. This means that the requirements of democracy are incompatible with the requirements of capitalism, making it impossible for both of them to coexist in the same society. According to Chomsky, this tension between democracy and capitalism can be resolved in one of the three ways: (1) by extending the principle of democracy to the realm of capital; (2) by using violent force to obtain people’s compliance; or (3) by using the mass media and institutions of socialization to shape public opinion in favor of the established order. The first option violates the basic principle of capitalism and will be unacceptable to the elite classes, while the second option foregoes any pretense to democracy and will be unacceptable to the masses. The third option is what is actually practiced in liberal democracies: it involves maintaining a facade of democratic institutions to placate the population while allowing the elites to keep their power and privilege. Such an arrangement inevitably requires extensive ideological management of the population, which is basically propaganda without any overt use of force, threats, or other authoritarian tactics. Propaganda has replaced violence.


Much of the ideological management of the population—also known as “thought control” (Chomsky’s phrase) or “manufacture of consent” (Walter Lippmann’s phrase)—takes place through news and political commentary in the mass media, a topic that Chomsky has discussed in detail in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which he co-authored with Edward S. Herman. In Requiem, Chomsky focuses on the role of advertising and public relations industries. He points out that the contemporary culture of relentless consumption is by no means a manifestation of natural human desires; it is, rather, the result of sophisticated manipulation of people’s feelings at a mass scale.

One of the best ways to control people in terms of attitudes is what the great political economist Thorstein Veblen called “fabricating consumers.” If you can fabricate wants, make obtaining things that are just about within your reach the essence of life, they’re going to be trapped into becoming consumers.

The consumer culture serves two main objectives for the ruling classes. First, it keeps the vast majority of population preoccupied with the most superficial pursuits, such as fashion and gadgetry,  thereby diverting their attention away from gross injustices and the continuous erosion of their rights. Second, it keeps the treadmill of production and consumption moving at an ever-increasing pace, a process that is essential for capital accumulation. In effect, consumer culture undermines democracy, causing it to loses more and more of its substance until it is reduced to nothing more than a shell.

Incidentally, the theory behind “fabricating consumers” and “manufacturing consent” is shared by conservatives and liberals alike: it is the idea that the vast majority of human beings are incapable of critical thinking, that people don’t know what is good for them, and that they shouldn’t therefore be allowed to make major decisions that affect their lives. The masses are like little children, not mature enough to understand how the world actually works and therefore undeserving of actual participation in public affairs. Consequently, the reasoning goes, the population must be led by an elite minority, i.e., by those who deserve to rule by virtue of their worldly knowledge, maturity, and superior intellect. The notion that society can only function on the basis of a natural hierarchy has been central to conservative thought, but Chomsky argues that many so-called progressives have embraced it too, either explicitly or implicitly: Walter Lippmann is a case in point.


Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Pubic (1927), p. 145.

According to Chomsky, consumerism plays a central role in keeping the “bewildered herd” preoccupied with childish concerns, allowing the elite to maintain an exploitative political-economic order behind the facade of democracy. Commercial advertising is the main engine of consumerism, inculcating a sense of inadequacy, deficiency, and alienation—a sense of existential lack that can only be overcome by acquiring the latest gadget, the newest car, or the most fashionable dress or accessory. The relief, of course, is short-lived, and the cycle keeps repeating itself over and over again. The resulting consumer culture serves the ruling classes by eroding community and solidarity, producing a type of individualism that isolates people from each other and drains their collective power, reducing citizens to consumers. Chomsky explains:

The ideal is what you actually see today, where, let’s say, teenage girls, if they have a free Saturday afternoon, will go walking in the shopping mall, not to the library or somewhere else. The idea is to try to control everyone, to turn the whole society into the perfect system. Perfect system would be a society based on a dyad, a pair. The pair is you and your television set, or may be now you and the Internet, in which that presents you with what the proper life would be, what kind of gadgets you should have. And you spend your time and effort gaining those things, which you don’t need and you don’t want, and may be you’ll throw them away, but that’s the measure of a decent life.

Chomsky notes that the purpose of commercial advertising is the exact opposite of what is taught in economic theory. The avalanche of advertisements to which we are subjected daily through television, billboards, and the Internet is intended to deceive, not educate. Advertising is not meant to inform the viewers so they can make wise choices; the aim, rather, is to indoctrinate them into desiring the goods and services they don’t actually need and often can’t afford.

If you’ve ever taken an economics course, you know that markets are supposed to be based on “informed consumers” making “rational choices.” Well, if we had a system like that, a market system, then a television ad would consist of, say, General Motors putting up information, saying “here’s what we have for sale.” That’s not what an ad for a car is. An ad for a car is a football hero, an actress, the car doing some crazy think like going up a mountain or something. The point is to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices. That’s what advertising is all about.

The principles and strategies that have proven so successful for selling cars and cigarettes and for branding corporations are widely used for selling political candidates and their agendas as well, come election time. This is the main reason why running for public office is such an unusually expensive undertaking, and why candidates who spend more money on their campaigns than their opponents win the elections 90% of the time. It is also for this reason that electoral campaigns are run just like any other marketing campaign, and that high-profile races, such as the Presidential elections in the United States, are managed by some of the most highly-paid advertising executives.

And when the same institution, the PR system, runs elections, they do it the same way. They want to create uninformed electorate which will make irrational choices, often against their own interests, and we see it every time one of these extravaganzas take place. Right after the election, President Obama won an award from the advertising industry for the best marketing campaign. It wasn’t reported here, but if you go the international business press, executives were euphoric. They said, we’ve been selling candidates, marketing candidates like toothpaste ever since Reagan and this is the greatest achievement we have.

The characteristic features of contemporary political campaigns include uncritical celebration of personal charisma, absence of specific promises, and vague appeals to emotions—features that are already familiar to us from commercial advertising. Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign was a highly successful example of this model. His electoral/marketing campaign won the Advertising Age’s “marketer of the year” award with 36.1% votes, defeating Apple, Zappos, and Nike. Just like most commercial advertising, Obama’s election campaign was designed to sell, not to inform, which is why it consisted of empty rhetoric that his audience were supposed to fill with their own ideas. As Chomsky notes, Obama never actually promised to deliver anything specific in his speeches. Rather, he used generic and vague slogans—emotionally charged words like “hope” and “change”—that the listeners could interpret in any way they wished. Large crowds at Obama’s rallies enthusiastically chanted “Yes We Can,” without noticing that the slogan was a meaningless claim that strategically avoided any commitment or standard on which the candidate’s performance could be evaluated.



The tenth and final principle of the concentration of wealth and power consists of the imperative to “marginalize the population.” According to Chomsky:

One of the leading political scientists, Martin Gilens, came out with a study of the relations between public attitudes and public policy. What he shows is that about 70% of the population has no way of influencing policy. They might as well be in some other country.

Chomsky is referring to a study published in 2014 by Martin Gilens of Princeton University (co-written with Benjamin Page of Northwestern). Gilens also published the expanded version of his research in book form as Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. In the original article, the authors begin by asking: Who really controls policy-making in the United States? Overall, there is a strong status quo bias, which means that it is very hard to get any kind of change happen through the political process. But when change does happen, it almost always favors the economic elite rather than the average citizen. The data shows that when the economic elites want to have a policy changed, the probability that the change will be enacted increases as the number of people supporting it rises. On the other hand, when the average citizens want to have a policy changed, and their preference is not in alignment with what the economic elites want, then such a policy has virtually no chance of being enacted—regardless of how many people support it.


downloadWhat Martin Gilens has shown, in effect, is that the United States may be a representative democracy in the technical sense but it is by no means an actual, functioning democracy. This is because government policies in our country do not reflect the preferences of the majority; rather, they reflect the preferences of a tiny economic elite. The term for this sort of arrangement is oligarchy, not democracy. When Gilens’ study was first published, it attracted significant attention in the media. The study is groundbreaking in that it proves through hard data and statistical analysis that the United States is, in fact, ruled by an economic elite. This conclusion, however, is something that most people already know and understand, even without any help from academic researchers. Chomsky makes the same point in Requiem. He also seems to predict that the resulting frustration and resentment could lead to adverse social and political consequences that we are, in fact, witnessing in the age of Donald Trump.

And the population knows it. What it has led to is a population that’s angry, frustrated, hates institutions. It’s not acting constructively to try to respond to this. There is popular mobilization and activism, but in very self-destructive directions. It’s taking the form of unfocused anger, attacks on one another, and on vulnerable targets. That’s what happens in cases like this. It is corrosive of social relations, but that’s the point. The point is to make people hate and fear each other, and look out only for themselves, and don’t do anything for anyone else.

The attempt to implement the ideals of democracy and capitalism at the same time leads to a serious contradiction, as mentioned above. While political power remains firmly in the hands of a small group of wealthy elites, the population is constantly told that they are the actual sovereigns who control their own destiny. The gap between dreams and ambitions on the one hand and the frustrating reality on the other hand goes on widening, leading to “unfocused anger” that demagogues are then able to channel towards scapegoats, i.e., religious and ethnic minorities. Trump’s victory in the 2016 elections, along with the rise of the ultra-right and white supremacy, seem to vindicate Chomsky’s analysis.

The disempowerment of ordinary people is evidenced, according to Chomsky, in how Americans feel about paying taxes.

April 15 is kind of a measure, the day you pay your taxes, of how democratic the society is. If a society is really democratic, April 15 would be a day of celebration. It’s a day when the population gets together, decides to fund the programs and activities that they have formulated and agreed upon. What could be better than that? So, you should celebrate it. It’s not the way it is in the United States. It’s a day of mourning. It’s a day in which some alien power that has nothing to do with you, is coming down to steal our hard-earned money, and you do everything you can to keep them from doing it. That is a kind of measure of the extent to which, at least in popular consciousness, democracy is actually functioning.

In an actual, functioning democracy, the general population will have control over how their tax dollars are spent. Americans hate paying taxes because they know, deep down, that they have no control over policy-making. They don’t see government as a manifestation of their own will, which would be the case in a real democracy, but as an alien entity that is more or less completely unresponsive to their needs and preferences. This is another way of saying that the ruling classes in the United States have successfully marginalized the population, and that they have done so as a matter of conscious policy.


The consequences are hardly surprising: When people lack any actual power to affect policy, they often show a tendency to become increasingly selfish, deciding that they must live according to the maxim “every man for himself.” But human beings can only flourish through cooperation and mutual goodwill. A society that’s based on the pursuit of narrowly defined self-interest will only destroy everything that comes in its path, and will eventually destroy itself.

The tendencies that we’ve been describing within American society, unless they’re reversed, it’s going to be an extremely ugly society. I mean, a society that’s based on Adam Smith’s vile maxim “all for myself, nothing for anyone else,”a society in which normal human instincts and emotion of sympathy, solidarity, mutual support … [are] driven out. … If the society is based on control by private wealth, it will reflect the values that it, in fact, does reflect. The value that is greed, and the desire to maximize personal gain, at the expense of others. Now … a small society based on that principle is ugly, but it can survive. A global society based on that principle is headed for massive destruction.

principle-7Large corporations and super-rich individuals can spend more money in a single election than the vast majority of people will earn in a lifetime. While one citizen can cast only one vote, concentrated wealth can allow you to shape the views of thousands of voters. Campaigns are expensive, and the availability of funds is often the decisive element. A candidate who is able to outspend his/her opponent wins the election nine out of ten times. Even if your favorite candidate doesn’t win, the money you’re able to contribute to the winner’s next election campaign can still buy you a significant amount of influence. Corporations tend to support both political parties, though their relative contributions can vary from one industry to another and also from one election cycle to another. This means that corporate funding is important not just for participation in elections but also for the day to day management of the party structure. Since both major political parties are constantly in the fundraising mode, they have little choice but to pay attention to the likes and dislikes of their big money donors.

Chomsky returns to a point he made earlier in the documentary:

Concentration of wealth yields concentration of political power, particularly so as the cost of elections skyrockets, which forces the political parties into the pockets of major corporations.

The U.S. Congress has tried to limit how much control big money interests can have on the electoral process, but it has not been able to go very far, thanks largely to a whole series of corporate-friendly decisions by the Supreme Court going back to the nineteenth century. Most people are at least vaguely aware of the Citizens United decision, but that particular Supreme Court ruling didn’t come out of the blue; it has, rather, a very interesting backstory. Chomsky suggests that we take a close look at history, so that’s what we’ll do.

“Corporations,” says Chomsky, “are  state-created legal fictions.” Basically, a corporation is an imaginary entity that is brought into existence when State agrees to give it certain legal rights. A corporation is considered a “legal person,” because it has the right to own property, make contracts, and hire employees, and because it is subject to applicable laws, just like an actual citizen. Everybody understands that corporations are not really persons—they don’t eat, drink, breathe, feel sad or happy, get sick, or die; rather, they are treated as persons only for the purposes of law, taxation, and so on. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, corporations have acquired more and more rights that were originally intended only for real persons.


The first major step in this direction was Dartmouth College v. Woodward, the 1819 Supreme Court decision that turned the corporate charter from a government-granted privilege into a contract that cannot be altered by government, making it difficult for the government to control corporations; it also held that corporations have standing in the Constitution. However, the most important developments in the expansion of corporate personhood rights took place after the Civil War, when corporate lawyers decided to take advantage of the word “person” as used in the Fourteenth Amendment.

In the wake of the Civil War, the Congress passed three amendments to the Constitution. These were meant to (1) abolish slavery, (2) expand the rights of personhood to former slaves, and (3) to give African American men the right to vote. Thus, the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) said in part “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to its jurisdiction.” The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) said in part “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdictions thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the States wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) said in part “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of substitute.”

The context of these three amendments make it abundantly clear that the word “person” was used in the Fourteenth Amendment with reference to the legislature’s concern for safeguarding the civil rights of former slaves in particular and African Americans more generally. There is no ambiguity here. Yet, as Noam Chomsky says in “Requiem,” that’s now how it was interpreted.

The fourteenth amendment has a provision that says no person’s rights can be infringed without due process of law. And the intent, clearly, was to protect freed slaves. So, okay, they’ve got the protection of the law. I don’t think it’s ever been used for freed slaves, if ever, [may be] marginally. Almost immediately, it was used for businesses, corporations. Their rights can’t be infringed without due process of law.

The issue first came up in San Mateo County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, an 1882 Supreme Court case. Among the railroad company’s lawyers was Roscoe Conkling, a former U.S. Senator and Representative from New York who had served on the committee that drafted the Fourteenth Amendment. Arguing before the Supreme Court in 1882, Conkling claimed that the drafting committee had decided to use the word “person” instead of “citizen” so as to ensure that corporations were covered under the equal protection clause (which turned out be a lie). The Court did not address the issue of corporate personhood in its ruling. Soon afterwards, in a related but separate case, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886),the Chief Justice was reported to have said before the hearing began: “The Court does not wish to hear argument on the question of whether the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.” This opinion of the Chief Justice was not included in the Court’s final ruling, yet it was recorded by the court reporter in the “headnotes” and was subsequently treated by other courts as if was, in fact, part of the Supreme Court’s official verdict.

The rest, of course, is history: Since Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, corporations steadily increased their power and were even able to successfully claim for themselves the various provisions of the Bill of Rights, sometimes at the expense of the rights of natural persons. Chomsky finds this phenomenon a moral outrage.

So they gradually became “persons” under the law. Corporations are state-created legal fictions. May be they’re good; may be they’re bad. But to call them “persons” is kind of outrageous. So they got personal rights back about a century ago, and that extended through the 20th century. They gave corporations rights way beyond what persons have. … While the notion of person was expanded to include corporations, it was also restricted. If you take the Fourteenth Amendment literally, then no undocumented alien can be deprived of rights, if they’re persons. Undocumented aliens who are living here and building your buildings, cleaning your laws, and so on, they’re not persons, but General Electric is a person—an immortal super-powerful person.

In relation to the engineering of elections, the most relevant Supreme Court rulings are those that applied the “free speech” clause of the First Amendment to corporations.

In 1971, the Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), requiring candidates to disclose sources of campaign contributions and expenditures. A scandal erupted in 1972 when an insurance magnate, W. Clement Stone, contributed $2 million to President Nixon’s election campaign, prompting Congress to thoroughly revise the FECA in 1974. The amended law included statutory limits on contributions by individuals to election campaigns as well as to political action committees (PACs), new disclosure requirements, campaign spending limits. It also created the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as an enforcement agency.

The provisions limiting campaign expenditures, however, were soon declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the Supreme Court ruled that political spending was equivalent to speech, and the First Amendment’s protections included financial contributions to candidates and political parties. Earlier, in Grosjean v. American Press Co. (1936), the Supreme Court had ruled that a newspaper corporation had a First Amendment liberty right to freedom of speech. In First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1977), the Court decided that non-media corporations had the right to spend money on ballot initiative campaigns.


Given the consistent tendency of the Supreme Court to give more and more rights of natural persons to for-profit corporations, the Citizens United ruling in January 2010 did not come as a complete surprise. That case, essentially, centered on the constitutionality of “soft money.” In the late 70s, the FEC had allowed donors to contribute unlimited money to political parties (but not to individual candidates) so long as it was used for “party building activities” as opposed to election campaigns. In reality, both the Republican and Democratic parties freely spend this “soft money” to support candidates, and efforts at bringing such spending under control by Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton did not succeed in Congress. In 1995, Senators John McCain (R) and Russ Feingold (D) started working on campaign finance reform to address the problem. The resulting legislation was blocked by Senate Republicans in 1998, but it passed the Congress in 2002 as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) and was signed into law by President George W. Bush .

In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), the Supreme Court overturned most provisions of the McCain-Feingold legislation that restricted corporate money in federal elections. The Supreme Court ruling declared as unconstitutional the prohibition on corporations (both for-profit and nonprofit) as well as unions regarding political advocacy through “independent expenditures” and the financing of electioneering communications. The ruling allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums on political advertising and other forms of advocacy aimed at convincing voters to support or reject particular candidates. Neither corporations nor unions were permitted to donate money directly to election campaigns or political parties, but they were now free to spend as much money as they want on promoting or undermining a candidate so long as there was no “coordination” with any campaign. As a result, the Citizens United decision made possible the rise of Super PACs—which are basically PACs on steroids.

Political Action Committees or PACs are organizations that collect funds and make them available to political parties of their choice, or donate them to a candidate’s election campaign. There are various legal restrictions on PACs in terms of who can donate to them and how much they can spend. For example, donations to traditional PACs are capped at $5,000 per year.

Two months after the Citizens United ruling, the federal Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held in Speechnow.org v. FEC that PACs that did not make direct contributions to candidates or political parties were allowed to receive unlimited contributions and to spend those contributions for political advocacy.


This decision, along with Citizens United, led to the proliferation of “independent expenditure only committees” or Super PACs. Such organizations can receive unlimited donations from individuals, unions, and corporations (both for-profit and nonprofit), and they can spend these funds to support a cause or a candidate, but are prohibited from “coordinating” their activities with any political party or election campaign. They are also required by law to disclose who their donors are.

The above rulings have not only opened the floodgates of political spending by both wealthy individuals  and business corporations, they have also created a legal loophole that allows unlimited spending by donors who prefer to remain in the shadows. This phenomenon has been aptly named “dark money.” Certain nonprofit organizations—mainly 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations—can act as Super PACs so long as political advocacy is not their primary function. Since these nonprofit organizations are not required to disclose who their donors are, they can receive unlimited money while shielding their donors from public scrutiny, and, at the same time, channeling these anonymous donations to political action committees. This nonprofit loophole has given rise to a relatively new phenomenon called “dark money.” Probably no one has exploited this loophole more than the Koch Brothers and the billionaire members of their secretive network.

The following chart (courtesy of Open Secrets) depicts political spending by outside groups. The term “outside spending” refers to political expenditures made by groups or individuals independently of a candidate’s election campaign. Groups in this category include conventional party committees, super PACs, and 501(c) nonprofit organizations. Notice the impact of Citizens United by comparing outside spending in the 2006 midterm elections to that in the 2010 midterm elections.


Another major blow to the proponents of campaign finance reform came in 2014, when the Supreme Court declared Section 441 of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) to be unconstitutional. The relevant law dealt with aggregate limits on individual spending per election cycle. For the 2013–14 election cycle, for example, an individual could give no more than $2,600 to a candidate for federal office, with an aggregate limit of $48,600. Moreover, individuals were prohibited from donating more than $74,600 to political parties and PACs. The total aggregate limit was therefore $123,200 per election cycle. In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court upheld the spending limit per candidate per election cycle, but struck down all the aggregate limits—allowing individual donors to support as many candidates per election cycle as they want. This decision paved the way for “joint fundraising committees,” which allow candidates to band together and legally raise large sums of money from the same individuals.



Chomsky identifies the eighth principle of the concentration of wealth and power in terms of the necessity, from the viewpoint of the elite, to prevent the working class from organizing and demanding its rights.

There is one organized force which [has] traditionally … been in the forefront of efforts to improve the lives of the general population. That’s organized labor. It’s also a barrier to corporate tyranny. A major reason for the concentrated, almost fanatic attack on unions, on organized labor, is that they are a democratizing force. They provide a barrier that defends workers’ rights, but also popular rights generally. That interferes with the prerogatives and power of those who own and manage the society.

The working class constitutes the overwhelming majority of the population. Unlike the plutocrats and the oligarchs, however, the working class is not as organized as it needs to be in order to safeguard its collective interests. There have been periods in the U.S. history when the working class did manage to organize itself through labor unions and socialist parties, and whenever it was so organized it was successful in gaining new rights. These include some of the most common features of the American workplace that we today take for granted, such as minimum wage laws, an 8-hour workday, overtime pay, lunch breaks, paid vacations, sick leave, wrongful termination laws, health insurance, sexual harassment laws, pensions, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, and the weekend. From the viewpoint of the elite, of course, this tendency of the working class to organize and successfully demand rights and seek improvements is simply intolerable. The United States has a long and violent history of repression against workers who dared to protest their conditions or sought to organize. By the 1920s, much of the labor movement had been successfully crushed by business interests. It was only in the wake of the Great Depression that it was able to resurrect and reorganize itself.

Chomsky explains how the credit for the New Deal can’t be given solely to President Roosevelt or the Democratic Party. These reforms would never have been implemented without the popular pressure from the masses, i.e., from organized labor and socialist parties.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he himself was rather sympathetic to progressive legislation that would be in the benefit of the general population, but he had to somehow get it passed. So he informed labor leaders and others, “force me to do it.” What he meant is, go out and demonstrate, organize, protest, develop the labor movement. When the popular pressure is sufficient, I’ll be able to put through the legislation you want. So, there was kind of a combination of sympathetic government, and by the mid-30s, very substantial popular activism [which made the New Deal possible]. There were industrial actions. There were sit-down strikes, which were very frightening to ownership. You have to recognize that sit-down strike is just one step before saying, “we don’t need bosses; we can run this by ourselves.” And business was appalled. You read the business press, say, in the late 30s, they were talking about the “hazard facing industrialists” and the “rising political power of the masses,” which has to be repressed.

Chomsky notes that the business interests returned to the task of marginalizing labor unions in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. At that point, quarter of the workforce was unionized, and the labor movement’s promise to avoid going on strikes during the war was no longer in effect. Prompted by business lobbies, the Congress passed the Taft–Hartley Act in 1947, severely restricting the power of labor unions. It amended the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act and nicknamed the “labor’s bill of rights.” The earlier law had given workers the right to organize and join labor unions, to strike, and to bargain collectively. It had also prohibited business owners from attempting to dominate or influence a labor union, and from encouraging or discouraging union membership through any special conditions of employment or through discrimination against union or non-union members in hiring. In effect, the Wagner Act had permitted a “closed shop” (when an employer agrees to hire only union members) as well as a “union shop” (when an employer agrees to require new employees to join the union). When the Republican Party gained control of the Congress in the 1946 midterm elections, one of its first priorities was to attack and weaken as many New Deal laws as possible. The first target was labor unions, hence the Congress’ gutting of the Wagner Act.


The Taft–Hartley Act, also known as the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, was the first step in the decades long process of dismantling the New Deal. It prohibited jurisdictional strikes, wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, secondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketing, and monetary donations by unions to federal political campaigns. Closed shops were prohibited and union shops were heavily restricted. States were allowed to pass “right to work” laws that outlawed closed or union shops. The act allowed the president to block or prevent the continuation of a strike on the grounds that it would endanger national health or safety. Democrats denounced the law as s “new guarantee of industrial slavery.”

Chomsky continues:

Then McCarthyism was used for massive corporate propaganda offensives to attack unions. It increased sharply during the Reagan years. I mean, Reagan pretty much told the business world, if you want to illegally break organizing efforts and strikes, go ahead. It continued in the 90s and, of course, with George W. Bush, it went through the roof. By now, less than 7% of private sector workers have unions.

The union membership in the private sector reached a peak in the 1950s and has since been on the decline. In 1954, about 35% of private sector workers were unionized; today, that figure is only 6.5%. The public sector unions have remained stable since the 1980s at about 11–12%. Labor unions act as barriers to economic inequality. When unions decline, the rich get richer while the working class incomes stagnate or plunge downwards, as depicted in the following chart. Notice how the share of income going to the richest tenth of the population (red line) came close to 50% on two occasions—1929 and 2008—just before the system crashed.

According to Chomsky, the post-WWII attacks on labor unions have virtually dissolved the main counter-force to the expanding power of the business class. As a result, when worker productivity and real wages started to diverge in the 1970s, there was no organized labor to speak of that could challenge the exploitation.



The decline of labor unions is also correlated with a decline in class consciousness among the working people. In sharp contrast, class consciousness is alive and well among the elite. In the United States, the plutocrats and oligarchs are busy exploiting the working class, which is the only reasonable explanation for the fact that all economic indicators show rising inequality. Yet, anyone who mentions this is immediately accused of causing division or fomenting class warfare. Strangely enough, Americans have, for the most part, grown allergic to the word “class.” The only time it is okay to use the word  is when someone is referring to the “middle class.” Apparently, neither the upper class nor the lower class exists anymore—we are all part of the middle class.

Chomsky explains how class consciousness has declined since the late nineteenth century, when the Republican Party represented the progressive element in the U.S. politics and regarded wage labor as nothing more than a type of slavery.

Now, if you’re in a position of power, you want to maintain class-consciousness for yourself, but eliminate it everywhere else. Go back to the 19th century, in the early days of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, working people were very conscious of this. They in fact overwhelmingly regarded wage labor as not very different from slavery, different only in that it was temporary. In fact, it was such a popular idea that it was the slogan of the Republican party. That was a very sharp class-consciousness. In the interest of power and privilege, it’s good to drive those ideas out of people’s heads. You don’t want them to know that they’re an oppressed class. So this is one of the few societies in which you just don’t talk about class.

The concept of class has to do with three main variables: wealth, income, and power. Your location in the class hierarchy is determined by how much of these you possess. Chomsky, in his inimitable style, simplifies the concept down to its bare essence: “Who gives the orders? Who follows them? That basically defines class.”