The Dreamer and the Prophet
by Aly Wane
Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are profoundly misunderstood figures in US history. We all know the clichés: Martin the Saint vs. Malcolm the Devil. Neither perspective is correct, and James Cone’s magisterial work Martin and Malcolm in America: A Dream or a Nightmare does much to remedy this misperception. Cone focuses on their common goals. Despite very different styles, Martin and Malcolm were both working towards a world of justice using strategies based on their own observations and experiences. In fact, they balanced out and completed each other’s perspectives. By the end of their heroic lives, they had both come to eerily similar conclusions about the United States, racial relations and poverty.
Childhood Origins of the Dream and the Nightmare
One root of their differences lay in their biographies. Martin was a well-to-do (for that time) African American from an influential religious family in Atlanta. He attended Morehouse College, receiving a top notch education. While not completely safe from racist incidents (he was deeply affected by an incident in his youth when he was separated from a white play friend), he did not suffer the worst. This helped explain his optimism about the US and his emphasis on the “Dream” of the Beloved Community, his utopian concept for a country where all are given equal opportunities. Another factor that aided in his advocacy of nonviolence was the psychological security he gained through his parents, the church and the academic world.
On the other hand, Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little: the X represents the loss of identity suffered by Africans shipped as slaves to the US) came from the very bottom depths of the African American experience. It is suspected (though never proven) that his father, an outspoken supporter of Marcus Garvey, was killed by white racists. His family was forcefully separated by social workers who deemed his mother “unfit,” causing her to lapse into insanity. Malcolm often recounted this event with bitterness. His attempts at integrating into white society ended when a teacher told him that he should become a carpenter, despite the fact that he was the brightest child in the class (he later re-evaluated his position on white society after a pilgrimage to Mecca). This explains his distrust of “white liberals,” and he heaped as much scorn on them as he did upon openly racist white southerners. Crumbling under all of this weight, Malcolm turned to drug dealing and pimping. It wasn’t until his conversion to the Nation of Islam (NOI, a black separatist religious group) that he turned the power of his intellect on the US. In contrast to Martin, he was perfectly poised to speak on the “nightmare” that the US was (and in some ways remains) for blacks in the US.
The Geography of Activism
The different physical grounds on which they fought for racial and economic justice can also explain Martin and Malcolm’s differences. Martin’s early work was mostly focused on the South, where racism was open and violent. Martin’s adoption of nonviolence fit the stage he was working on. He understood, better than Malcolm did, that southern whites could meet violence with violence. His retort to Malcolm’s advocacy of armed resistance was that it would lead to a bloodbath. Indeed, Malcolm’s philosophy would have been a disaster if it had been attempted in the South. Racists like Sheriff “Bull” Connor would have been only too pleased to wipe out what he termed “uppity Negroes.” A master strategist, Martin used nonviolent actions combined with the media to expose the depth of racial hatred in the South.
In contrast, Malcolm’s ire was reserved for “white liberals” in the northern cities. What Malcolm understood better than Martin was the depth of economic despair in the black ghettoes. Just as Martin understood the religious motivations of the people he inspired, Malcolm understood the rage building in the northern cities. In fact, Malcolm correctly predicted the explosion of the Los Angeles Watts riots, an event that baffled a naïve Martin who had just scored a legislative victory with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Malcolm was famous for referring to whites as “devils,” a religious tenet he had gained from Elijah Mohammed, the leader of the NOI. He also delighted in confronting white audiences with the ugliness of America’s inhuman injustice towards “black people,” a term he specifically used with pride. A self-taught master of history and an expert debater, he was so formidable that Martin discouraged allies in the Civil Rights movement from sharing the stage with Malcolm. To this day, uninformed people insist that Malcolm was a racist. What he actually advocated was the right to self-defense, a right he believed to be universal. He reminded black people to find pride in themselves. One of his iconic quotes was “Treat me like a man, or kill me.”
Initially, Martin saw Malcolm’s philosophy of armed resistance and separatism as yet another form of dangerous racism and feared that blacks would adopt this method. He also believed very deeply in integration, while Malcolm advocated openly for separation until his famous pilgrimage to Mecca. On the other hand, Malcolm was baffled by the philosophy of nonviolence. A product of the violent northern ghettoes, Malcolm often called nonviolence “unmanly,” and he accused Dr. King of cowardice for using children in his nonviolent marches.
However, the two leaders privately respected each other and began to see that they were trying to solve similar problems. Malcolm eventually broke with the Nation of Islam and adopted Sunni Islam, which teaches that all races are equal under God. He started to gradually understand the courage that it took for Martin and his followers to brave the vicious brutality of white southerners. In fact, he began to consciously position himself as the “alternative” to Martin. Americans, in their denial of history, often forget that national leaders saw Martin’s message of nonviolent direct action as too radical at first. It wasn’t until Malcolm hit the national stage through Mike Wallace’s program “The Hate that Hate Produced” (1959) that white leaders started to back Martin. Robert Kennedy, for example, urged people to follow Martin in anticipation of the “Black Muslims” of the NOI. The more radical Malcolm was, the more palatable Martin’s message became, and Cone documents that Malcolm was conscious of his role as a “covert helper” of Martin.
Once exposed to the racial powder keg of the northern cities and the economic wasteland of the ghettoes, Martin began to adopt some of Malcolm’s criticisms. The period from 1965 to 1968 was the darkest, yet most important period of Martin’s life. He began to forcefully rail against the evils of “racism, imperialism and global capitalism.” This is the Martin who has been silenced by the guardians of popular history. Martin became increasingly unpopular, and the very northern liberals whom Malcolm warned him about turned against him. Even some of his fellow African American civil rights supporters, including the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, disagreed with Martin’s new, more radical tack.
Malcolm attempted to correspond and collaborate with Martin towards the end of his life. Unfortunately, just before they could formalize their association, Malcolm was tragically murdered. Three years later, it was Martin’s turn to suffer the martyr’s fate. The US lost a great deal when these two leaders were murdered, and Cone’s analysis does much to clarify their contributions. The only proper way to mourn them is to take up the struggle where they left off.