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.


After 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?

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