Review: MLK, X, and BLM—The Sword and the Shield, by Peniel Joseph

The Sword and the Shield 
by Peniel Joseph
Basic Books

Reviewed by Carr Harkrader

When Martin Luther King Jr. came to Chicago in 1966 to promote integrated housing, his marches through white ethnic enclaves on the southwest side attracted such scorn and physical violence he stated that, even in the Deep South, he hadn’t “seen mobs as hostile and hate-filled as I’m seeing in Chicago.” Dorothy Tillman, then a civil rights organizer with King and later a prominent Chicago civic leader, said that King told them that “Daley’s plantation was worse than the plantation in Mississippi.”

It is places like Chicago—as much as states like Mississippi and Alabama from which so many Black Chicagoans fled—that served as sites for the re-altering of American democracy in the 20th century. Perhaps Minneapolis and Louisville will appear the same to future historians. In his new history, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., historian Peniel Joseph gives us a timely, thoughtful, and accessible fusion of biography and critical analysis explaining how a “binary understanding of Malcolm and Martin” limits our understanding of their impact on each other and American freedom. Their oppositional public images—northern radical versus southern conciliator; gun-toting versus Gandhi-believing; Harlem’s working-class orator versus Auburn Avenue’s Ebenezer Church preacher—masked the “overlapping and intersecting strains of revolutionary black activism” they represented.

King’s unfavorable comparison of Chicago to the Deep South wouldn’t have surprised Malcolm X. “I consider anything south of Canada the South,” Malcolm would often say. Joseph describes him as focused on a lifelong project of demanding radical Black dignity. Unafraid to call out white supremacy, Malcolm based his declarations on his deep love of being Black. His parents were inspired by self-determination and Marcus Garvey’s “back to Africa” movement. Converting to the beliefs of the Nation of Islam while serving time in a Massachusetts prison, Malcolm found a spiritual father in Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam (NOI). Fusing calls of Black nationalism with self-uplift, the NOI was based out of the South Side of Chicago. Malcolm seemed to value the dignity it offered because it was so hard-won for him in a life that, until then, had offered little support, and much degradation, for his obvious talents. King, on the other hand, the son of a prominent preacher, seemed born with a sense of his own worthiness and promise. His concern, Joseph documents, was for a radical citizenship that “deplored poverty while recognizing love, democracy, and justice as sacred principles.” The mechanism for that cherished citizenship was the Black freedom struggle, but King’s hope was for a transcendental democratic revolution to transform America’s soul.

One of the many accomplishments of this book is Joseph’s ability to balance intellectual insight with deft writing. A demonstration of this is Joseph’s persuasive case of both men’s international impact. His understanding of Malcom X’s planning of a “revolutionary global insurgency” that would focus on human rights, anti-colonialism, and political self-determination for formerly colonized countries situates Malcolm X as a revolutionary equal to Cuba’s Castro or Ghana’s Nkrumah. Indeed, much of Malcolm’s excitement over organizing Black voters seemed to arise from their potential to transform American foreign policy during the Cold War. After Malcom’s assassination in 1965, King seemed to absorb his global (in all senses) ambitions and, in what Joseph calls “the boldest political decision of his career,” he began to condemn the Vietnam War. As King took his civil rights work outside the South, his struggles in the urban North, typified in his experience in Chicago, spurred him to connect racism, economic injustice, and American Cold War imperialism more fully.

I wish Joseph had paused and spent some more time on certain subjects: religion, most importantly. He rightly identifies how Malcolm X saw his religious and secular projects as fused in “the soul cleansing work of political activism.” But how did that convert’s zeal set him apart from King’s literal Christian inheritance from his pastor father? Did their differing religious backgrounds influence their credence in “democracy’s redemptive capacity?” And, perhaps most salient, what from their spiritual beliefs informed their vision of a world after the demons of racism and poverty were purged? Certainly, King and (especially) Malcolm X would recognize calls today for dismantling white supremacy. But both also envisioned a world beyond the temporal. Their religious commitments were the foundations of that long-term vision. Their work was sustained by faith, in all aspects of the idea.

Joseph touches more on both King’s and Malcolm X’s issues with women and gender. Neither could be said to be a feminist, even for their times. Both certainly worked with and learned from numerous female organizers, social critics, writers, and activists. But they just as often—King, especially—ignored or alienated women in the civil rights movement. Ella Baker, Pauli Murray, and Shirley Graham Du Bois were some of the more prominent women who both influenced and critiqued King and Malcolm X. A lengthier explanation of their views would help readers understand their fundamental contributions to the movement.

A discussion of these issues would give fuller value to Joseph’s already valuable book; a book that arrives at a gravity-defying moment in American racial history. Today’s organizing, fostered and led by women and queer organizers, seems to draw as much from Baker, Murray, and women like Fannie Lou Hamer, as it does from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Indeed, perhaps the most gender-integrated organization of the time (and the one that neither Malcolm or King controlled) the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, is the most direct connection to today’s movements for racial justice and the value of black lives.

Yet, as The Sword and the Shield persuasively argues, the legacies of Malcolm X and King still “matter now more than ever.” The recent passing of John Lewis and CT Vivian, young contemporaries of both King and Malcolm X, highlights the relatively short distance between their actions and ours. Chicago is Montgomery is Kenosha is Tallahassee. This book reclaims the radicalism of icons for a time that demands it.

The Sword and the Shield is available at most local bookstores and through the publisher’s website. 


Carr Harkrader is a writer and educator living in Chicago. He works for a nonprofit where he writes and designs online educational resources and content. Originally from North Carolina, he is often the slowest talker amongst any group of Northerners. He enjoys both crappy reality tv and literary fiction, while often not really grasping the meaning of either.

Categories: ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *