If only we could revive the fruitful tension between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X
Reflections on Dr Kings death have overlooked how his liberal universalism and Malcolm Xs separatism gave each other strength
Publisher: The Observer
Date Written: 08/04/2018
Year Published: 2018
Resource Type: Unclassified
Cx Number: CX22307
Kenan argues that conflict averse approach to activism blunts the edge of contemporary social movements for change.
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr was shot dead in Memphis by a white segregationist and fugitive, James Earl Ray. Three years earlier, on 21 February 1965, the same fate had befallen Malcolm X, assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam.
In the decades since their deaths, they have come to symbolise polarised approaches to the question of racial equality. We can understand neither man, however, without recognising how their outlooks changed during their lives.
King's insistence on non-violence is well known but his radicalism is often forgotten. In the mid-1960s, he took a decisive, and politically brave, stance against the Vietnam war, describing America as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today". He became an advocate, too, of working-class struggles. In the weeks before his death, King was deeply involved in the Memphis sanitation workers' strike, when rubbish collectors had taken industrial action for union recognition, better conditions and equal pay. To question poverty, he observed, is "to question the capitalistic economy".
Malcolm X reinvented himself to an even greater degree. A petty criminal in his youth, it was in prison that he discovered the Nation of Islam and became a Muslim. By the 1950s, he had become became the NoIs most effective public advocate, a searing voice against racism, but also, like all NoI members, deeply inflected with bigotry and misogyny.