Dialogs: 2020 CHF Event—Discussing MLK and Malcolm X with Dr. Peniel E. Joseph

Dr. Peniel E. Joseph Reported by Carr Harkrader “Whoever heard of a revolution that came out singing, and not swinging,” Malcolm X asked about the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent civil rights strategy. In a perceptive talk as a part of the outstanding (and this year virtual) Chicago Humanities Festival, the historian Dr. Peniel E. Joseph shared this quote and traced the twisty, wary, beneficial, and complementary relationship between Malcom X and King during the height of their work in the 1960s.

The author of a new book on both men, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph was interviewed by Jonathan Eig, a journalist and author of a forthcoming biography on King, and laid out his case that King and Malcolm X were “iconic figures that were converging” around a deeply anti-racist and radically minded approach to human rights in America and beyond. Often portrayed as the reverend and the rebel (or the "dream and the nightmare," as Joseph coyly noted), the images of the two men have been, at least in the popular imagination, conflated with opposing forces within the Civil Rights Movement—sometimes by the men themselves, as Malcolm’s quip about King demonstrates.

Both in his talk and his book, Joseph presents a more complex portrait. Throughout the conversation Joseph characterized them as litigators of race in America—with tactics, skills, and strategies shaped by their respective roles. Malcolm X was the zealous prosecuting attorney who, with media savvy and wit as sharp as the suits he wore (one can only imagine what Malcolm X would do with Twitter), constantly crafting a case against irredeemable white supremacy. King, on the other hand, could be seen as a defense attorney, patiently arguing to a skeptical court of public opinion about the value of Black lives and citizenship in American life. His burden was made heavier by his belief that white souls were also at stake in the struggle for civil rights and his defense of the redemptive power of the civil rights struggle tested the patience and beliefs of other, less forgiving figures in the Black freedom movement.

Both men found sustenance for their arguments in their religious commitments. The hajj that Malcolm X took to Mecca sparked a personal evolution within him on how Islam could help overcome seemingly intractable racial divisions. Eig told of how King “went all in on his faith” when he made his controversial break with mainstream opinion and announced his opposition to the Vietnam War in 1967. He started to “march arm-in-arm with Black Power revolutionaries influenced by Malcolm X,” Joseph notes, and, until his tragic murder in Memphis 1968, focused on building a multiracial coalition dedicated to economic, political, and social change.

Credit goes to CHF for providing accessibility options for viewers, including live sign language. For all its frustrations, the requirement of Zoom-like talks nowadays does, if done right, detach many of the rhetorical barnacles that often attach themselves to conversations like these. Eschewing long-winded introductions or endless “thank-you's,” Eig started the conversation by asking Joseph which figure, Malcolm X or King, he would have dinner with and where (Malcolm X at Sylvia’s soul food restaurant in Harlem, “hold the pork”) and the conversation proceeded with an ease that occurs between two experts with a personally immersive knowledge of their subjects. 

In response to a concluding question, Joseph, a scholar of the Black Power movement, expressed surprising optimism for the future of anti-racist work in America. This year saw “the largest social justice demonstrations in American history” for intersectional racial justice. “We should compare this year to 1963 which open up massive opportunities for civil rights legislation...and real deep reforms over the next 15 years. We should look at our time as that, but on steroids.”

A recording of the event can be viewed here.   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. Harkrader previously reviewed Dr. Joseph's book,The Sword and the Shield, for Third Coast Review here.
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