Two figures towered over Black America in the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr called for racial integration, for nonviolence, for love of the enemy. Malcolm X advocated racial separation, armed self-defence and self-love – black pride. Martin Luther King came out of the Black middle classes, the American South, the traditional Christian churches. Malcolm X came out of the Black underclass, the North, some new form of Islam. King spoke for reconciliation; Malcolm X for rage.
And yet, in the years before their assassinations, both leaders were on converging paths.
Earlier, while a minister in the separatist “Nation of Islam” (NOI), Malcolm X preached racial separation as a religious duty. He condemned Martin Luther King as “traitor”, an “agent of the white man” and a “religious Uncle Tom”.
Then in March 1964, Malcolm X broke with the NOI, starting a year of startling personal development. He moved, for example, from saying that racial intermarriage was morally wrong, to viewing it as “just one human being marrying another human being”.
He began reaching out: “I’m not out to fight other Negro leaders or organisations.... As from this minute, I’ve forgotten everything bad that the other leaders have said about me and I pray that they can also forget the many bad things I’ve said about them.”
Malcolm X reached out to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He travelled down to Selma, Alabama, at SNCC’s invitation (just days before his death), to deliver a fiery speech – as Martin Luther King sat in jail not far away.
He told King’s wife: “I want Dr King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr King.”
The missed meeting
Malcolm X repeatedly attempted to meet with King, publicly and privately. Clarence Jones, King’s legal counsel, stated in 1989 that the reason King avoided contact with Malcolm X was the negative impact this might have on major sources of funding in the New York Jewish community.
Nevertheless, King might have met Malcolm X. (A year after Malcolm’s death, King met the leader of the NOI, Elijah Muhammad.) Exaggerating the convergence of the two, author James Baldwin suggested that “by the time each met his death, there was practically no difference between them.”
True, by the time of his death Malcolm X had overcome his anti-white racism, and had thrown himself into the civil rights struggle, unafraid to mix with “integrationists”. However he remained committed to Black nationalism and the right to armed self-defence and violent revolution.
What is less well known is that in the three years before his assassination in April 1968, Martin Luther King moved somewhat in Malcolm X’s direction.
After his failed campaign in Chicago, King concluded that racism was so deep – especially in the North – that “temporary segregation” was probably the only means of overcoming powerlessness in the Black community.
In his book Where do we go from here, echoing Malcolm X, King said that his dream had become “a frustrating nightmare”. Following Malcolm X’s lead, King began speaking out more and more boldly against the Vietnam War, despite the opposition of many in the civil rights movement.
Another point of convergence for the two men was their growing conviction that racial liberation was tied up with, and conditional on, economic liberation.
When asked in 1964 what political and economic system he favoured, Malcolm X answered: “I don’t know. But I’m flexible... all of the countries that are emerging today from under the shackles of colonialism are turning toward socialism. I don’t think that’s an accident.”
In 1966, King discussed the Swedish welfare state with his staff, saying: “something is wrong with capitalism... there must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism”.
In his Gandhi memorial lecture in 1966, King noted that while granting African Americans the right to vote “did not cost the nation anything”, the struggle had moved on to “basic class issues between the privileged and the underprivileged”. A solution would mean “the restructuring of American society”, and would “cost the nation something.”
In August 1967, King said: “capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor, both black and white, both here and abroad…. We must recognize that the problems of neither racial nor economic justice can be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”
King knew that contesting entrenched interests meant “getting on dangerous ground”: “You are messing with Wall Street. You are messing with captains of industry.” The white backlash was “a reaction to questions being raised by the civil rights movement which demand a restructuring of the architecture of American society.”