Martin Luther King & Malcom X original

This essay was the main part of my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on EU moves to reform copyright law). It was published in the Observer, 8 April 2018, under the headline ‘If only we could revive the fruitful tension between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’.

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 Fiquestion 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 NoI’s most effective public advocate, a searing voice against racism, but also, like all NoI members, deeply inflected with bigotry and misogyny.

He eventually broke away from the organisation in 1964. ‘There will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing’, he told the Canadian TV host Pierre Berton, ‘but I don’t think that it will be based upon the colour of the skin.’

By the end of their lives, the two men had drawn closer to each other’s views. Their differences were, however, real and spoke to an inherent tension within the struggle for racial equality. King expressed a universalist ethos – that racism was intimately bound with the social structures of America and that challenging it required the creation of broader social movements.

Malcolm X was sceptical both about the possibilities of such movements and about King’s call for moderation to win wider support. He insisted that blacks had first to organise on their own and to protect themselves ‘by any means necessary’. It was a vision that inspired the radicalism of the Black Panthers and the Black Power movement. But there was also something deeply conservative in his stress on moral reform and individual uplift as the route to a more just world.

Fifty years on, the racial landscape in America is very different. The White House has been home to an African American president. Yet in many ways little has changed. Median white family income in 1963 was seven times that of non-whites; in 2016, it was 6.6 times that of African Americans. Much has got worse. The proportion of the prison population that is black has nearly doubled since 1968; mass incarceration of African Americans now constitutes, in the words of civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander, the ‘new Jim Crow’.

What has most regressed, perhaps, lies in the terrain of politics. The tension between King and Malcolm X remains, though is expressed differently. On the one side stand liberal universalists, espousing a ‘colour blind’ philosophy, on the other, those who cleave to a politics of identity.

In the 1960s, the tension between the two approaches was fruitful. It created a dialogue about how to change social structures and people’s minds that shaped the political journeys of both King and Malcolm X. Both men were a fusion of the conservative and the radical. In the context of wider social ferment, it was the radicalism that came to the fore.

Today, though, both sides have been shorn of radical aspirations. The ‘colour blind’ approach is too often an excuse to ignore the social and economic realities of black people’s lives. The politics of identity expresses a pessimism about social change, advocating instead a retreat into sectional silos. The result is an acceptance, in the sardonic words of African American academic and activist Adolph Reed Jr, that ‘a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino’ and so on.

Detached from wider movements for social change, the radical legacies of King and of Malcolm X have largely been interred. The conservatism lives on.


The photograph is of the only meeting of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X on Capitol Hill, 26 March 1964. Photograph: Marion S. Trikokso/Library of Congress


  1. Scott Wagner

    It almost always feels important to ponder these two men’s approaches. I was also very glad to see you emphasize the arc of their personal approach in the context of their times. Those changes would’ve been much more instructive, perhaps integral to modern history, had they lived.

    > The politics of identity expresses a pessimism about social change, advocating instead a retreat into sectional silos.

    There is no useful, simplistic moral equivalence within identity politics writ large, between Black Lives Matter, say, and the National Rifle Association. Much if not most healthy politics, as with MLK and the Panthers, must and should be identity driven to a large extent, like the civil rights movement of the sixties. Rainbows and intersections and big tents notwithstanding, it will ever be thus, because exceptions, minorities, and the marginalized must speak and act as a core group to gain attention and justice. Intersectionality and a stick-to-our-knitting strength is part of existing, healthy identity politics, and it keeps us afloat morally, as during all the days of MLK. Unlike with xenophobic rightist identity nonsense, when liberals complain about the left’s identity politics, we find they’re complaining about what isn’t getting done, not what is. BLM is supposed to not just be extremely useful, not just involve the uninvolved, but it also must magically eliminate poverty, in a fantasy of automated, natural intersection. Rainbows should grow from every crack in the sidewalk; it’s all Jews for Palestine’s fault; it’s a deadly mistake to emphasize the plight of women, of African-Americans, of transsexuals, of ethnic war victims; if MLK had lived, the Vietnam war would’ve ended just-like-that, because broad change is so natural and easy when we stop focusing immaturely on inconsequentials like race and gender. When people complain about “sectional silos” on the left, they’re complaining almost completely about low participation rates, which make it hard to reach beyond tactics like BLM to address commonalities liberals share, like war and poverty. There’s a reason MLK only got to intersectionalism just before he died, a reason why it was a secondary part of civil rights changes. The lie to this false dichotomy that decries all identity politics will be seen the day we are again strong enough to boycott a city bus system for two years, or protect the minorities scattered from homeless camps by surrounding them, or housing them.

    And please don’t let us assume that pessimism, leveraged well and often by both MLK and Malcolm X, is a universally wicked trait of identity work. There is a pessimism of grief and pain and crushing exposure, and pessimism that engenders innocent victims and ready enemies. The activists I rely on most are fueled by their grief; they’re the most pessimistic of us, and often the most accurate. To even simply witness well, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, can mean being placed in a gauntlet by intellectuals as destructive, selfish, or negative, Often, a pessimist simply knows a thing well enough to see reality bending a longer, less lustrous arc.

    As to the interment of leftist radicalism: you’re right, we’re not hard to peg as failures. But let’s see what happens now. My country seems to be waking a bit, now that a charlatan is our leader, and the Fantasy Island scenarios of his tribe unspool in light of day. In contrast, many beautiful stories are unfolding, among the youth, within identities, and among the poor, and many more are to come. We’re all waiting for something more than anemic participation on the left. Perhaps this goad will precipitate it.

  2. For a long while now I feel there is a balance to be had between unity and diversity or in this context universalism and relativism. As such any radical expression of either leads to violence as history attests since ignoring difference challenges existing perceptions of cultural hierarchies as well as allowing discrimination to go unchallenged whilst emphasing difference fractures society as well as challenging existing perceptions of cultural hierarchies.

    If therefore universalism and relativism are seen as two overlapping circles, then the non-overlapping area of universalism, that is the radical end of universalism, tends to allow discrimination to go unchallenged whereas the non-overlapping area of relativism, that is the radical end of relativism, tends to fracture society. Each of the radical perspectives therefore reinforces each other and are therefore unsustainable unless chaos is the desired end. It could then be argued that the radicalism of both Martin and Malcolm is what got them both killed and as a result more culturally sensitive policies are required.

    This leaves the overlapping regions of both whereby less radical versions of universalism and relativism are required which still challenge existing cultural hierarchies but in a culturally sensitive way hence assimilation policies and multicultural policies respectively.

    Considering that radical forms of both universalism and relativism would require very high levels of state interference (in terms of policing policy especially within the private domain whether in the form of positive discrimination or selection procedures) in order to achieve very high levels of non-discrimination or very high levels of representation in terms of ethnic diversity, then a form of technocracy will be required as opposed to democracy.

    Since any form of radicalism that is to be implemented as national policy requires some form of technocracy which then needs to be heavily policed on balance I think people in general prefer more conservative versions of both universalism and relativism and thereby allow democracy to change and transform cultural hierarchies as well as put emphasis on individual endeavour and will to succeed with limited state support.

    I’d certainly be interested to hear different policy choices other than multiculturalist or assimilationist policies which don’t rely on the need for hard forms of technocracy as currently expressed as radical identity politics which actively seeks to oppress pluralism in the name of liberal universalism or radical universalism which ignores the fact that non-identity politics is an identity formation in itself.

  3. patricksodonnell

    Re: “By the end of their lives, the two men had drawn closer to each other’s views.” Readers interested in further exploring this fact will find it well addressed in James Cone’s, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare? (Orbis Books, 1991).

    For an interesting article that speaks to their different views on violence and nonviolence, see John M. Kang’s article, “Martin v. Malcolm: Democracy, Nonviolence, Manhood” West Virginia Law Review, Vol. 114, No. 937 (April 11, 2012) Available:

  4. patricksodonnell

    Another title, this one just about Malcolm X is worth reading if the above material is of interest: Eugene Victor Wolfenstein’s incisive study (which ‘contains’ a ‘psychobiography’ but is much more than that), The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution (London: Free Association Books, 1989), helps one understand in a very vivid way how the social circumstances of one’s upbringing and life (in this case, owing to the determination of race and class variables) can deeply impinge upon and in some measure shape the (‘worldview-type’ and significant) moral and political choices one perceives and come to make over time.

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